Cardiff steam laundry tumbles towards oblivion

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

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.

4 thoughts on “Cardiff steam laundry tumbles towards oblivion

  1. Like Peter Finch I remember emerging from Marlborough Road Junior Mixed opposite the ed wall on the other side of the road and wondering what went on behind it. Glimpsed from the top of the No. 24 bus the former Cardiff Steam Laundry seemed an even more mysterious and rather fearsome place. Sadly, as Peter mentions, it lost its original function many decades ago and we have only woken up to its interest now that it is threatened with demolition.

    Its sad fate over these years strongly suggests viable alternative uses have never been easy to find but to start the ball rolling in response to Peter’s search for ideas here are a few. What about a gallery of modern art as promised by Cardiff in its bid a few years back for European Capital of Culture status? It would be a more attractive home for such an institution than the transport depot in Grangetown originally proposed. Or perhaps it could be an offshoot for the Cardiff Life museum in The Hayes, housing bigger exhibits such as transport equipment and machinery.

    There are further gaps in our museum provision in Wales. Our country has been a pioneer in education – think early monastic seminaries and cells at Llantwit Major, Llancarfan, Llanbadarn and elsewhere, popular education and literacy as a result of Griffith Jones of Llanddowror’s efforts, the 19th century story of the University of Wales, the achievements of the Welsh grammar school system and the introduction of comprehensive education in Anglesey ahead of everywhere else in Britain.

    Or take war. Wales has a long history of resistance to invaders from the Romans, through the Anglo- Saxons and the Normans up to the repelling of the last invasion of British soil in Pembrokeshire. Coupled with this we have (though some might not care to admit it) been keen participants in the wars Britain has fought everywhere around the world for several centuries past and still provide more than our proportionate share of service personnel. There is too the tale of the Blitz and its impact on Swansea, Cardiff and other Welsh towns.

    This is no doubt all fanciful. The building is probably unsuitable for any of these purposes and in the present financial climate funding would be difficult to raise or justify from public sources. If the buildings and the walls have to be demolished therefore to make way for a retirement village (no bad thing in itself and in a not inappropriate location given the closeness of shops, parks and good public transport), let us hope the city’s planners at least ensure the developers keep to the promise of a series of buildings that fit in with surrounding structures.

    The area from the top of Ninian Road alongside the “Rec” to Waterloo Gardens and even beyond is a pleasing unity of design, encroached upon only at the eastern fringes next to the old coal line to the docks by post 1914 buildings. Indeed, the splendid villas in some of these roads make it one of Cardiff’s unrecognised jewels. Any new buildings should match these in quality and appearance.

    One last thought. One of our more successful recent indigenous Welsh businesses is by chance a commercial laundry and linen hire company supplying hotels through England and Wales – Afonwen from Pwllheli, with branches in Cardiff, London and Leeds. Perhaps they could be persuaded to take on the site and bring it back into use. A real steam laundry operating in the heart of Roath once again – what a splendid sight that would be!

  2. From an architectural and historical point it would be a real shame if this building is lost, however we can’t live in the past, is there any group/organisation prepared to take this building on rather than just sit at the PCs complaining? No didn’t think so.

  3. Paul, I think you’ll find that there is a group who are actively seeking ways to progress ideas of community benefit and not “just sitting at their PC’s complaining”. That group is the ‘Save the old Laundry’, who are researching and meeting to find ways to stop the demolition and use the building for the community. There’s too much of this “living in the past” negativity in South Wales which has meant many unique buildings have been lost. It’s not just about saving a building with architectural and historical merit, but keeping a unique building with unique qualities to be converted for a unique new purpose of wide community benefit.

    Peter and Rhys. The ‘Save the old Laundry’ group are campaigning for an Environment Centre. Cardiff hasn’t got one but Swansea has. An Art Centre was dismissed early on as one isn’t needed for the reasons indicated in Peter’s article. As for a Museum extension Rhys, one is certainly needed in Cardiff (or somewhere in South Wales) considering the vast wealth of Art that is in storage at the Museum of Wales, but the Laundry building isn’t the right place I would suggest.

  4. In response to Peter Finch’s eloquent but also problematic argument, and as an active protagonist in the “Save the Laundry” community group I would like to try and clarify a few facts. The idea of an art centre, was dismissed by our group very early on. Also the group has made it clear our chosen concept of a Centre for Food and Sustainabilty would have a cafe or bistro at its heart, that would be day time only. The picture Peter paints of noise, traffic and late night drinking is far removed from the project we have in mind. The re-landscaping of the ground around the building is an important part of our vision too, allowing for kitchen, garden, trees and plants, as well as an internal car park. To say that the level of traffic would be superior to that of a retirement block of 55 flats (which would take up a lot more built up space than the existing building remember) is highly debatable. Elderly people drive too, not withstanding daily and late night visits by relatives, doctors, nurses etc… As Cardiff is now preparing for active development of its cycle routes (with one cycle path, I believe, planned along Albany road), it is also a good time to be encouraging potential visitors to cycle, and of course many would walk. The idea of the Farmer’s market is of course not to compete but to integrate the current Roath Market, which in its current setting of Makintosh Place looks like it is far from fulfilling its potential. This is something I feel strongly about. As a weekly customer of the Roath Farmer’s market, I can cover most of my shopping needs. And by being carefully selective I find that I am not spending any more money than I would at the supermarket, whilst the quality is incomparably superior. There is so much to celebrate about Welsh food, not least its fabulous cheeses! The Laundry building with its many halls covered in original glazed bricks, has the potential to become a shop window for Welsh produce, also creating an economic link between the urban and the rural. What we have in mind for the site is to restore the building lovingly and develop a garden for all, to make it a place where people want to be. You just need to look at the success of the Waterloo Gardens Tea House (whose owner, Kas is by the way really supportive of our project!), to see what a craving there is in our community for places of quality where people can gather and that they can be proud of. With regard to funding, please let’s not tar everything with the same pessimistic brush. Our research shows that there is funding available around political strategic priorities such as Health and the Environment. Providing that the demolition of the building can be prevented, I am sure that with political good will, effort and time our goals can be achieved. Or would you rather have a dull and boring block of flats?

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