Rookwood Hospital in Llandaff is well known to residents of Cardiff and in 2018 it celebrates 100 years since the property was first used as a hospital. Less is known, however, about the house as a grand and opulent family home prior to its conversion to a hospital. Several sets of records at Glamorgan Archives help to fill in the gaps prior to 1918 and provide an insight into the house and the family that built and lived at Rookwood from 1866.
The records of Stephenson and Alexander, Auctioneers and Chartered Surveyors of High Street, Cardiff provide a useful starting point in looking at the history of Rookwood. They include papers that provide a fascinating glimpse into what would have been one of the grand houses of Cardiff at the turn of the 19th century. In 1917 Rookwood, then still a family home, was put up for sale. Stephenson and Alexander were charged with handling the sale and they produced a prospectus for potential buyers with full details of the house and the estate along with a number of photographs. The records also contain background information, not used in the brochure, with additional photographs and details of key items of furniture. In all, the material compiled by Stephenson and Alexander helps to paint a detailed picture of the house in the summer of 1917.
From the outset it is clear that Rookwood, although only two miles from the centre of Cardiff, was a substantial house and estate. As might be expected the auctioneers went to great lengths to underline its desirability:
The property is an exceptional one in any other respects. It is situated close to, in fact almost adjoining the City of Cardiff, and yet in such a secluded and beautifully sheltered position, that once within its precincts it is difficult to realise that an industrial City is only a few miles distant.
The magnificent views obtainable over the whole of Llanishen, Lisvane and surrounding districts are particularly beautiful. The mildness of the climate at Llandaff is apparent by the extraordinary luxuriant growth of all kinds of flowering shrubs – including Camellias which bloom luxuriantly and regularly out of doors – Rhododendrons, Azaleas and the like, and also the collection of Japanese Maples, which is considered to be one of the finest in the Kingdom.
Set in 26 acres of land, the estate occupied an area between Fairwater and Llantrisant Roads. By 1917 much of the outer rim of the estate had been turned over to pasture but, at the centre of the estate, there was still 9 acres of woodland and gardens.
The Gardens and Grounds are singularly attractive and have for many years been prominent on account of the generous manner in which the owners have on many occasions thrown them open to the public, and numerous exhibits and the number of prizes won for fruit and vegetables at the local Flower Shows. The delightful walled Gardens, with the broad herbaceous borders, the Rookery, the Rose Gardens and Woodland Walks, small items in themselves when added to the many other attractions, make this Property a particularly desirable one from a residential points of view.
The house, however, was the jewel in the crown. It was one of the better examples of the grand mansions erected by families that had prospered from the economic boom in South Wales in the latter half of the 19th century:
Rookwood was built in the year 1866 and is of the early 13th century English Gothic design. It was considerably added to in the year 1881 by Mr John Prichard well-known as the Architect employed in the restoration of Llandaff Cathedral and the erection of many important Gothic Houses in the locality. The North Lodge was designed by him and is a very fine example of half timber work, built regardless of cost and also the very beautiful Porte Cochere which is one of the features of the residence.
The internal decorations and painted ceilings were carried out under the direction of Mr J D Crace FSA, the renowned artist and designer of the great staircase in the National Gallery and other important building in London; this internal painting has never been touched since its completion, is still in perfect order and represents some of the finest of its kind.
The Camelia House built entirely of Teak with panels of mosaic forms a most handsome addition to the House. There is an interesting Summer House overlooking the lawns that was brought from the outskirts of Cardiff, and appears in an old view of the City dating from the eighteenth Century.
Having set the scene we are then provided with a room by room tour of the house and estate buildings. The estate could be approached by carriage drives from either Fairwater or Llantrisant Roads with, in each case, a substantial ‘artistic lodge’ built at the entrance to the estate. On arrival guests would have drawn up outside the imposing arched entrance to the south front of the house provided by a Port Cochere that can be seen in the first of the photographs in the folder. The front of the house with its turret and stone bay windows was designed to impress and almost certainly hit its mark with visitors.
The Mansion House which is built of Radyr stone with Bath stone facings and red tile roof, stands in a beautiful sheltered and mild position clad with well-grown specimens of Magnolia, Wisteria and Myrtle.
Photographs of the entrance hall with its teak doors and the drawing room provide an invaluable record of how the interior of the house would have looked in 1917.
It was no coincidence that the entrance hall had its own fireplace. For some that may be as far as they were allowed to venture but, even then, with its painted walls and ceiling there was no mistaking that you were in grand house. There were some 35 pegs on the teak cloak stand and they would have been fully used given that the owners frequently threw large garden parties and evening musical soirees.
For those invited past the threshold, the drawing room, with its heavily patterned wall paper and carpet, was the focal point of the house. It was a room to be admired and also a room that had to passed through in accessing many other areas of the house.
BEAUTIFUL DRAWING ROOM (38’ X 17’ 6”) with two large double bay windows, oak parquet floor, teak mantel piece and over mantelpiece, beamed and painted ceiling, with door leading to Dining Room and large sliding doors leading to the heated Conservatory….
From the photographs in the prospectus we can see that, in accordance with the style of the day, the Drawing Room had an array of ornamentation including ceramics above the highly decorated fireplace, with an iron and brass grate, along with photographs and paintings on the wall. Interestingly, just to the left of the fireplace there is a frame with 9 portrait style photographs almost certainly of the owners and their seven children. But more of the family later.
The background notes compiled by the auctioneers confirm that all of the rooms had electricity and the drawing room was lit by a highly ornate Venetian glass chandelier, referred to an ‘Electolier’.
Purchased at the famous glass makers, Salviati of Venice, it would have provided an imposing centrepiece to the room alongside the brass mirrors on the walls and the marble figure of ‘Clytie’, a water nymph from Greek mythology. In addition, one of the two Broadwood pianos owned by the family, probably the grand piano, would have been in this room. The owners were a musical family and the drawing room would have been used frequently for evening entertainment with both family and professional performers.
So the tour continues on the ground floor through the dining room, the billiard room, the library with its walnut book shelves, the small smoke room and Camellia House …built of teak with panels of Mosaic, glass and tile roof and two doors leading to the Garden and verandah. Finally, as part of the ‘back premises and domestic offices’, there was a large kitchen, scullery and servants hall. Separate from the house there were two stables, two coach houses and a saddle room. Although the coach houses had been converted to hold motor vehicles by 1917, the records confirm that they still held a four wheeled Landau, a reminder of how the family would have travelled though Cardiff by carriage not so long ago.
The house saw many eminent guests including a Lord Chancellor and Field Marshal Earl Roberts, hero of the Afghan campaigns and the Boer War. Those staying with the family would have been swept up the imposing central teak staircase to the first floor where they would have found, for family and guests, five double bedrooms, including four with adjoining dressing rooms, a nursery and seven single bedrooms.
A house such as this required a significant number of staff. Records for 1891 confirm that at least 10 staff were employed in the house alone. On the second floor six staff bedrooms were provided, in addition to the accommodation for the butler and housekeeper on the ground floor adjoining the kitchen. The butler was charged with the security of many valuable items and his pantry was equipped with a Cartwright safe over 5ft high with 3 shelves and 3 drawers.
Even so, there would not have been enough space for the house staff, and there were further bedrooms for a maid and footman on the ground and first floors. The two estate lodges would have been reserved for the more senior staff, with one allocated almost certainly for the Head Gardener. The prospectus confirms that the lodges, at least from the exterior, were significant and ornate buildings. Stephenson and Alexander described the Lodge on Llantrisant Road as …an artistic half-timbered House with red tiled roof and leaded casement windows …contains five rooms and pantry, has water laid on and good kitchen garden adjoining.
The role of Head Gardener carried a great deal of responsibility leading a team of gardeners, probably drawn from the local area rather than living on the estate. The gardens were used frequently by the family for parties and events and would have been familiar to many of the local families including the Insoles, Brains, Crawshays, Corys, Courtis and Mackintosh.
Again the photographs help to provide an impression of the estate, with views of the tennis and croquet lawns, summer house and a garden walk.
The detail in the prospectus, however, underlines just what a formidable task this must have been. The gardens consisted of three distinct elements including two extensive kitchen gardens. The prospectus describes just one of the kitchen gardens as having …a long centre board walk, Summer House and arbour spanned by rose arches, flanked by deep herbaceous borders and planted with wall and standard fruit trees of all descriptions in full bearing. The bush trees are enclosed in a wire netting fruit cage on iron supports. In addition to a second Kitchen Garden, there were also two orchid houses, a tomato house and two greenhouses. Beyond the kitchen gardens a second area of land was styled as …the Pleasure Grounds. This included a large rose garden, lawn areas, rose and tulip gardens with boxed edge paths and a woodland area with …remarkable specimens of conifer and other trees including Wellingtonias, Cedars, Lime Beech and Elm. The third area, the park land, had been largely let as pasture by 1917, bringing some relief to the Head Gardener’s role. All in all, maintaining the estate would have been a considerable undertaking.
As a sign of the times much play was made in the prospectus that Rookwood was … fitted with modern conveniences, including its own Electric light, modern Drainage, Cardiff Water and Gas. Indeed the prospectus went into detail on the National Gas Engine and Compton Dynamo fitted in the purpose made Electric Light Power and Storage House. However, the prospectus also carefully identified areas of estate that could be sold off while maintaining a core of the house and its ornamental and kitchen gardens. It is likely that the hardships resulting from the war were making estates, such as Rookwood, increasingly financially unviable.
The purchase, therefore, represents not only a charming and most unique property as a Residence, but also a very valuable investment bound to very materially increase in value in course of time. If desired, a portion of the land could be developed without detriment to the House and Grounds.
It is clear that owners were a wealthy and influential family that enjoyed throwing the home and grounds open for grand events. However, who were they and what prompted the family to put their home up for sale? Furthermore, what happened next and how did such a splendid family home come, within 12 months, to be converted into a hospital? Fortunately, the records held at Glamorgan Archives help to unravel both questions. To be continued…
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer
Many thanks to Keith Edwards for his invaluable assistance in identifying the documents used in this article from within the Stephenson and Alexander collection.