Cardiff steam laundry tumbles towards oblivion

Peter Finch asks how far we should go to keep what we once had in the Welsh capital

Working life in the Roath Sanitary Steam Laundry

For the past twenty years Cardiff has been a boom town. The centre, once riddled with brick terraces and soot-marked municipal Victoriana, has been turned into a futuropolis. The Docks, until the 1980s a decrepit post-industrial wasteland, have been re-imagined as Cardiff Bay and made into the Emerald City with Lloyd George Avenue as the Yellow Brick Road. It’s a shining example of Welsh civic centralisation and local boosterism meeting up with profit- fuelled property development against a background of weak planning control. Cardiff has rocked, rolled and tumbled into the Dan Dare future. Along the way it has somehow achieved for itself a purpose that it has lacked since the days of coal.

Change has been Cardiff’s driver with almost nothing sacred. The canal went, docks were closed and filled-in, the meshed streets of the town centre were turned into shopping malls, the meeting halls and grand cafes became stores and apartment blocks, while the traffic, hated and loved by everyone to some degree or other,  spun in ever tightening circles.

But move out from that white-rendered, glass and steel centre and what do you find? The world as it was. Cardiff’s 1890 to 1920 industrial red-brick boom is still largely in place. The suburban streets with their corner shops, pubs and amenities are still there. So, too, are the parklands, our beloved green lungs, our open spaces, our playing fields, our streams and rivers.

Nothing much changes in the suburbs. We live as we always did in Canton, Cathays, Roath, Penylan, Ely, and Llanishen. Maybe we’ve added new fitted carpets, inside bathrooms, double glazing and central heating. But essentially we are as we were.

In Penylan, before the new build workers’ housing rushing up from Roath got there, on Lord Tredegar land, halfway between Roath Court and the great houses of  Bronwydd, Wellclose, Fretherne, and Oldwell on the side of Penylan Hill  stood an open field – part of Tir Colly farm. In 1898 The Dyeing, Carpet and Window-Cleaning Company Ltd opened their new venture, the Cardiff Steam Laundry. Built of Cattybrook Bricks with bath stone and white marble embellishments the enterprise occupied an acre-wide site. Cardiff’s burgeoning middle-classes needed somewhere to send their soiled shirts and their creased sheets.

There’s a drawing in the Western Mail of 23 September, 1898 that shows the new laundry in full glory. It is surrounded on three sides by open fields, trees and hedges. That wouldn’t last for long. In 1900 Marlborough Road School opened alongside it, designed by the same architects – Habershon and Fawckner – the company which also built most of the terraced houses in the road. Within ten years the farm and the fields had gone. The Laundry was taken over by United Welsh Mills in 1923 and later slid into disrepair as a buddleia-infested outpost selling cut-price carpets, wood flooring and pine furniture.

The school, for all of its 110 year existence has opened onto the laundry’s unbroken red brick wall. In the days when communism was a force somebody painted a patriotic hammer and sickle there. As fear of the Russians rose a gallows was painted above. The outlines of this long-lived graffiti are still just about visible – on a fine day.

In the 1940s the Infants school was hit by a German Bomb and pupils rehoused on a temporary basis at Albany Road. By the time I got there in 1952 the reception classes had been rebuilt. There were still bomb shelters in the yard. In the Junior school, several years later, I was sent out through the school window, half a crown in my hand, to slip up the hill to buy my form teacher a packet of ten Players Navy Cut. I told my mother. As a smoker herself all she did was smile.

In 2008 outline planning permission was granted by Cardiff Council for the development of a fifty unit retirement complex plus doctor’s surgery on the now almost vacant Marlborough Road laundry site. The 2009 recession led that developer to withdraw. When the economic climate subsequently improved the site went back onto the market. There followed a contest between a supermarket chain and provider of what’s euphemistically called ‘assisted living’, retirement accommodation builder McCarthy & Stone. Retirement  won.

McCarthy & Stone are now proposing to demolish the laundry, red brick walls and all, to build in their place a multi-unit, landscaped retirement village. Click here for a detailed look at their plans. They’ve done the whole public consultation exercise, handing out leaflets and running an exhibition:  41 people came.

The McCarthy & Stone arguments are good ones. Retirees, they say, tend not to drive, live quietly, don’t hold late night parties and won’t want onsite drinking and dancing facilities. Impact on the local neighbourhood will be low. The red brick wall along the Blenheim Road frontage, in place at least a year before the school was built, will go. The retirement apartments will be built to look rather like the existing Blenheim Road housing stock. They’ll use red bricks. They’ll look the Victorian part.

It all sounds very reasonable, measured and calm. But for the fact that yet another part of Cardiff’s past will go and go forever. As a city we’ve never done very much to conserve what we have. Not that we had that much to begin with. Cardiff is essentially  a Victorian and Edwardian creation. There’s little here that predates the 19th Century. The façade of the Laundry, the steam boiler rooms, the stables and the sorting and storage sheds would be untouchable if they were a hundred years older than they actually are. CADW would have listed them as unique, designated them a site of significant historical and cultural interest, developed them as a tourist attraction, attracted Heritage Lottery grant aid and charged us to go in.

But they are too young. Rather like the Red House pub, lost to apartment development in the Bay, they’ll have to go.

A local opposition group with a membership that has already topped 300 has made a call for arms and wants to fight the developers head on. They have a Facebook page:  Save The Old Laundry Cardiff. They suggest the site should be developed as an arts centre, a sustainability centre or a centre supporting Welsh food and culture.  All are laudable aims, but ones that would certainly present people living in the surrounding streets with more traffic, more noise and potentially more late night drinking than they currently experience.

I wonder, too, in these times of funding squeeze, who might pay for the development? The Council has already made clear who their preferred developer might be and finance for that initiative is already in place. Do we actually need another culture centre in Cardiff’s east? How can I, a long standing proponent of the east of the city’s creative development, be asking this? But a few blocks away from the Laundry site is The Gate, an existing arts complex, which could do without competition on its doorstep. Nearby at the Mackintosh Institute is a weekly Farmer’s Market. Would they move or would they compete?

Is there an answer that will work? I’m desperately searching for one. Keeping the past as it was would mean knocking down the school and the nearby housing to return the Laundry and its outbuildings to their original field-surrounded state.  That is clearly ludicrous. How far should we go to keep what we once had?

Would a development that retained the facades but rebuilt everything else be what we need? That’s happened to Altolusso on Bute Terrace where the Victorian façade of what became New college has been retained and a 232 foot skyscraper built onto the back. Does that maintain the continuity of our history? Maybe we could lift the whole thing, brick by brick, and rebuild it at St Fagan’s. That’s happened there with churches and workingmen’s halls. However, I fear that economics and, more importantly, time will be against all this. Soon the bulldozers will come.

Peter Finch is on sabbatical leave as Director of Literature Wales. The Save the Old Laundry Cardiff Facebook page can be found here, and the Save the Old Laundry Blog is here.