The Day Aladdin played at Cardiff Arms Park

There was a was remarkable spectacle at Cardiff Arms Park almost 130 years ago, when on Thursday 23 January 1889, Aladdin’s XV took the field to play Dick Whittington’s XV. With the Chinese Professor of Magic, Abanazar, at full back and Widow Twankey and the Emperor Congou in the pack, Aladdin’s team, drawn from the pantomime cast at the Theatre Royal, was a formidable combination. Dick Whittington’s XV, representing the Grand Theatre, was led by Idle Jack and, allegedly, fielded 16 players – presumably 15 plus the cat. The South Wales Daily News reported that the teams were cheered on by a ‘tremendous crowd’ that included the full cast from both theatres. The star of the afternoon was Mr Luke Forster also known as Abanazar. The report does not reveal whether he used his powers of magic but, through his efforts, Aladdin’s XV triumphed …by a try and 4 minors to nil. Not to be outdone, Mr E W Colman, the Grand Theatre’s Idle Jack, was carried from the field on the shoulders of his supporters to celebrate …the run of match from his own 25 to the Royal 25 yard line.

Behind the gaiety this was serious business as the two theatres vied to capture the crowds that flooded into Cardiff each night to attend the pantomimes. Glamorgan Archives holds a collection of playbills used to promote the performances of the pantomime at the Theatre Royal.

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Situated on the corner of Wood Street and St Mary Street, a site later occupied by the Prince of Wales Theatre, the Theatre Royal was built in 1878. In its pomp it held up to 2000 people in an opulent auditorium upholstered with red velvet. Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp was the eighth pantomime to be staged at the Theatre. Through the array of playbills produced for its run, from December 1888 to early February 1889, we can see that it was one of the biggest and most lavish productions of the year. In an effort to attract the crowds the playbills provided details of the cast and a summary of each scene with details of the settings and the acts on show. Every effort was made to fill the theatre night after night, with special trains laid on from Swansea, Merthyr and Rhymney with reduced fares for those purchasing theatre tickets at the station on boarding the train.

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Billed as the …most splendid pantomime in Wales, Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp had twelve scenes, each with ornate scenery depicting streets and markets in China, Aladdin’s Cave, the Flying Palace and the Home of Sphinx. In the reviews published in the local newspapers the scene set in the Halls of the Alhambra, was described as the piece de resistance. Each scene had its lead act and in the Halls of Alhambra the lead was taken by the Sisters Wallace, Fannie, Emmie and Nellie and …their wonderful song and dance specialities. They were supported by the comedians Sawyer and Ellis (described as extraordinary double top boot dancers) as two policemen …who put the House in roars. If that was not enough, the scene closed with the ‘Beautiful Ballet of the Months’ performed by sixty dancers – one of three ballets staged during the performance. The stars of the pantomime were Miss Howe Carewe, described as …a most charming Aladdin and Miss Marie Clavering as the Princess. They were supported by Luke Forster and Frank Irish as Abanazar and Widow Twankey. The lead players were just the tip of the iceberg with the playbills identifying a cast of 30 actors plus an array of supporting roles and dancers.

There are eight playbills at Glamorgan Archives for Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp and they show how the pantomime was adapted and changed during its two month run. The aim was to appeal to all ages and refresh the acts, songs and dances so that people would come back over and over again. For example, by the end of January a set of acrobats and a comic football match had been incorporated into the performance. It was also the practice for the lead actors to be given a benefit night and there are playbills to advertise the nights identified in January for Miss Howe Carewe and others. However, there were signs that all was not well. By January, the playbills confirmed that Marie Clavering had been replaced by Miss Florence Bankhardt, who had arrived …direct from the New Opera House, Chicago, to take the part of the Princess. There were also signs that the comedians were under pressure to improve their act – with mixed results. Commenting on the new material introduced by Frank Irish as Widow Twankey, the South Wales Daily News welcomed the comic account of the Swansea and Cardiff football match but was more circumspect about references to ‘Adam and the fig leaves’.

The fact of the matter was that, although Aladdin was hailed as the finest pantomime staged at the Theatre Royal, there was now a new rival for the pantomime audience in the form of The Grand Theatre of Varieties on Westgate Street. Opened in the previous year, The Grand was staging its first pantomime and its owners were intent on impressing. The Grand was a bigger and more lavish theatre than the Royal and described as one of the most beautiful of its kind. It had also committed an enormous budget to finance its first pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat. In late January 1889 the Western Mail reported that there were still thousands flocking each night to The Grand, with many unable to gain admission. The newspaper concluded:

The success is due without a shadow of a doubt, to the all-round excellence of everything that goes to make up the pantomime.

It seems that Aladdin’s XV may have won the game at Cardiff Arms Park. However, the Theatre Royal, despite heroic efforts, came second in the battle of pantomimes 130 years ago in Christmas 1888.  Did someone say ‘Oh no they didn’t’? I’m afraid that the evidence suggests ‘Oh yes they did’!

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

The playbills for the productions at the Theatre Royal between 1885 and 1895, including ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’, can be seen at Glamorgan Archives, reference D452. The newspaper reports can be found on the Welsh Newspapers Online website. The report for the Cardiff Arms Park match is in the South Wales Daily News for 24 January 1889.

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‘A Pageant to be Proud of’: The opening ceremony of the Sixth British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Cardiff Arms Park, 18 July 1958

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Cardiff Arms Park has hosted many events that have attracted a wide and enthusiastic audience but few have rivalled the evening of 18 July 1958 when John Brockway read out the following message in front of over 34,000 people:

We declare that we will take part in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games of 1958 in the spirit of true sportsmanship, recognising the rules which govern them and desirous of participating in them for the honour of our Commonwealth and Empire and for the Glory of Sport.

The event was the opening ceremony of the Sixth British Empire and Commonwealth Games and John Brockway was the captain of the Welsh team. The ceremony was broadcast across the globe and the story of that evening is told through records held at Glamorgan Archives, including a copy of the official programme for the opening ceremony.

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The Sixth Empire and Commonwealth Games was a major event with 36 teams and over 1400 competitors and officials, almost double the numbers hosted by Vancouver in 1954.  To cater for the opening ceremony significant work had been undertaken at the Arms Park, with improvements to the South Stand at a cost of £65,000 to bring the seating accommodation up to 15,000 and the total capacity to 60,000 for rugby matches. To cater for athletics, the surrounding greyhound track has been converted to a six lane cinder running track. In addition, sections of the hallowed Arms Park turf had been removed to provide for the field events. Stewarding was undertaken by 300 volunteers marshalled by Mr Wyndham Richards, Chairman of Cardiff Athletic Club. However, the key factor in the reduced capacity that night was the determination that the majority of the crowd of 34,000 would be seated. It is interesting to note that, 60 years ago, views on the future of the stadium were remarkably akin to the approach used many years later in the design for the Millennium (now Principality) Stadium:

The Cardiff Arms Park Committee has further plans for development and this may eventually produce a total accommodation of 75,000. I doubt whether it would be possible to increase the total beyond this figure. Yet the seating arrangements for the Games may well be adopted in future years for International rugby since more people want to sit at big matches than stand.

The opening ceremony may not have been the spectacle that is now associated with major events such as the Olympic Games, but it would have still been quite a display. It began at 5.30 with the arrival of the guest of honour, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was greeted by the band and drums of the Welsh Guards followed by a 21 gun salute from Sophia Gardens. The 36 teams then paraded around the stadium, led by Canada as the most recent hosts of the Games with Wales, as the current hosts, taking up the rear.  The Welsh team of 114 athletes contained many well-known names. John Brockway was an experienced and celebrated athlete who had represented Great Britain as a swimmer at three Olympic Games and had won a silver and gold medal for Wales at the Empire Games held in Auckland and Vancouver respectively. Alongside him that day marched many well-known faces, including athletes John Merriman, Jean Whitehead and Ron Jones and boxer Howard Winstone.

Each team paraded in their national colours, with the Australian team described in the newspapers the next day as resembling a …green crocodile and the Welsh team likened to …a flame in crimson and white. Alongside teams from Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the Home Nations there were much smaller contingents, including North Borneo, Sierra Leone and Dominica. The biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Thomas Augustine Robinson carrying the flag for Bahamas as the sole representative from his country. In fact Tom Robinson was greeted with cheers whenever he appeared during the week and, in particular, when he won the Gold Medal in the 220 yards sprint.

The crowd then greeted the arrival of the athlete carrying the Queen’s message. The first leg of the baton relay from Buckingham Palace to Cardiff had been undertaken by Roger Bannister. In all, the baton had travelled over 600 miles in four days carried by 664 athletes and children. The identity of the Welsh athlete who would run the final leg had been kept a closely guarded secret. There was an enormous cheer, therefore, when Ken Jones entered the stadium. Perhaps best known as an outstanding rugby wing for the British Lions, Wales and Newport, Ken Jones was also a talented athlete who had won medals in the sprint relay at the 1948 Olympic Games and 1954 European Games. In recognition of his achievements he had been named as the first Welsh Sportsman of the Year in 1955.

After completing a circuit of the track Ken Jones presented the silver baton to the Duke of Edinburgh, who read out the Queen’s message. This was followed by the release of carrier pigeons carrying the message to all parts of Wales. John Brockway, as captain of the Welsh Team, then took centre stage to take the Oath on behalf of all the competitors.

At that point the teams left the stadium to be replaced by entertainment provided by a 500 strong choir of massed voices representing Wales as the ‘Land of Song’. Their performance concluded with Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ to be followed by a display of marching by the Welsh Guards. The ceremony concluded with the singing of the Welsh and British national anthems.

Many years later The Telegraph newspaper published an interesting account of Ken Jones’ experience of the opening ceremony. It claimed that the runner bringing the baton to the stadium was late. To meet the agreed timetable Ken was handed a replacement baton and told to set off. In the confusion and blinded by the sun he set off the wrong way around the stadium track and mistook the uniformed Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan for the Duke of Edinburgh, who was wearing a suit. Slightly irked by this the Duke remarked ‘Where have you been? You’re late’. On the conclusion of the ceremony a similarly irked Ken retired to the pub.

There is no way of knowing whether this is true. If it is, it certainly did not dampen the enthusiasm of those at the Arms Park and those listening and watching across the world. The next day the newspapers reported that Ken Jones had been …cheered to the skies… and the ceremony had been a triumph with an estimated 40,000 cramming into the stadium, well in excess of the official capacity. Not even reports of the famous English athlete, Gordon Pirie, being disciplined and excluded from the march past for arriving at the Arms Park late and without his team uniform could detract from the evening. As the Daily Mirror reported, every man and woman in the Stadium …must have been bursting with pride… for …it was a pageant to be proud of.

A copy of the official programme for the opening ceremony of the Sixth British Empire and Commonwealth Games held on 18 July 1958 at Cardiff Arms Park is held at Glamorgan Archives (ref.: D832/5).

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Construction of the Millennium Stadium

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In 1878, Cardiff Football Club (later Cardiff RFC) and Cardiff Cricket Club were granted the use of Cardiff Arms Park, at a peppercorn rent, by the third Marquess of Bute.  In 1922, the two clubs amalgamated to form Cardiff Athletic Club, which subsequently purchased the land from the Bute family on the understanding that it should be preserved for recreational purposes.  Until the late 1960s, the northern part of the site was used for cricket and the southern for rugby union, with Wales playing home international matches on the same pitch as Cardiff RFC – though, prior to 1953, some matches were played in Swansea.

In 1968, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) acquired the freehold of the south ground.  Cricket moved to Sophia Gardens and their former pitch was transformed into a new ground for Cardiff RFC.  Work then began on redeveloping the south site to provide a National Stadium to be used solely for international rugby matches.  Constructed in several stages, it was completed in 1984 with a capacity of 65,000, which was later cut for safety reasons to 53,000.

Within ten years, the WRU was exploring options for further redevelopment of the stadium, whose capacity was now considerably lower than those of the English and Scottish national stadia.  Additional impetus came when Wales was chosen to host the 1999 Rugby World Cup.  The solution involved a new stadium on broadly the same site.  However, the purchase of adjacent land allowed the alignment of the pitch to be rotated from west-east to north-south, and capacity increased to 72,500, all seated.  The new stadium would also be equipped with a sliding roof, allowing it to serve as a multi-use venue.

The stadium was designed by Lobb Sport Architecture.  The main contractor was John Laing Construction and the structural engineers – who designed the retractable roof – were WS Atkins.  56,000 tonnes of concrete and steel went into the project, which ran between 1997 and 1999.  In order to provide the required seating capacity and comply with space restrictions around the site, the stands rake outwards as they rise from the ground, creating a dramatic architectural form.

The total construction cost was £121 million, of which £46 million was lottery funding contributed by the Millennium Commission.  This was recognised in the naming of the stadium until 2015.  However, in September that year, the WRU announced a 10-year sponsorship deal with the Principality Building Society; as a consequence, the name changed to ‘Principality Stadium’ in 2016.

As well as rugby union, the Millennium Stadium has hosted a variety of sports, including rugby league, speedway, boxing, a stage of the World Rally Championship, indoor cricket, equestrian events, and Welsh international soccer matches.  Six FA Cup finals and several other important football fixtures were played there while Wembley Stadium was redeveloped between 2002 and 2007.  The UEFA Champions League Final was held there in 2017.

Each year, a number of live music events take place, headlined by major international artists.  Particularly noteworthy was a charity concert held on 22 January 2005.  Organised in just three weeks, it attracted a host of star performers and raised £1.25 million to aid relief efforts following the Boxing Day tsunami in South Asia.

On a more day-to-day basis, the stadium also offers a range of facilities for conferences, dinners, banquets, balls, parties and weddings receptions.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted: