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Memories of Canton, Cardiff, around 1900

By Christopher James

Written before 1974, contributed by Peter Meazey, February 2004

My father was the landlord of the Cross Inn, Canton. It was open from 6 AM until 11 PM each week day. The first customers of the day were the stevedores who arrived with their very large and shiny shovels held on their shoulders by the string sling of their strong metal food tins. They would have glasses of tea and rum or rum and coffee for the cost of 2d a glass. The tea and coffee was kept hot on a tea urn, with three separate containers kept hot by a gas jet. There was no electrics lighting in those days. Gas was in general use and a great improvement in lighting took place when the gas mantle was invented.

Beer was cheap and much stronger than that brewed now. It was 11/2 d and 2d a pint. The only bottled beer was Bass, Worthington and Guinness at 3d per ½ pint; Whisky Rum and Gin sold for 3/6 a bottle. The best Walkers Black Label Whisky was 4/3 a bottle. Spirits were sold at 20 degrees under proof. Now it is 30 degrees under proof; that is 10 degrees weaker. About 100 of quarter bottles would be sold on a Saturday night for a shilling each. The bars were for men only, with a separate compartment for the women. Another room called the Bar Parlour was usually used by Husbands and Wives together.

Unskilled workers earned about 17/6 a week. The average landlord was fortunate if he reached 50 years of age.

Each week Canton Cattle Market took place when farmers and their wives from the Vale of Glamorgan arrived in their carts and their traps. The yard and stable would be full of them. The farmers went to the Market which now holds the buildings of the Cantonian High School. The market had lots of sheep and cattle pens and there was a slaughter house attached. Part of the wall of the slaughter house and yard is still there. It can be imagined the state of the  stone and earth roads were in during the summer. It was dust and manure all over the place. Small boys with little trucks made from a box on pram wheels would quickly shovel up the manure for the garden, whilst each day large water carts would sprinkle the main roads to keep the dust down.

The trams were small and drawn by a horse. All the driver had to do was attend to the brakes and gee-up the horse . The tram depot and stable was next to Severn Road Council School. The other transport was cabs and handsoms for hire whilst Doctors and Professional Gentlemen had their own carriage and coachmen, usually in bottle green coat, cockade in top hat and yellow topped knee boots. The coach was usually enamelled as good as any motor car and usually lined with leather or Bedford Cord.

The stable would be in the lane at the rear of the owners large garden whilst the coachman, who was usually general handy man as well, slept in a room over the stable.

Shopkeepers, Tinkers and Characters

The district was well supplied with odd characters. Here are a few of them.

Langey the Slaughterman.

He had fair hair, a good complexion, and an athletic springy step. A likeable man, he would call and say to my mother "Have you a clean plate, Mrs James". When one was forthcoming he would take a sharp knife from his pocket then opening it up he would take from his side pocket some fine sweetbreads. Then with a sharp cut the contents of each sweetbread was fall on to the plate. How we all enjoyed our breakfast of bacon and sweetbreads. I believe that most glands are now removed from animals at the time of slaughter and put straight into deep freeze for medical purposes.

Uncle George the drover.

He was my uncle and was loved by all the family. When young he wanted to marry a good servant girl. I was told that her family would not approve of the union so George "opted out" as they say in this day and age.
He wore a thick morning coat, a shapeless bowler hat turning green, thick trousers and heavy boots. He had a very heavy blackthorn walking stick like a club which he took on his journeys to fairs. I remember that the day or so after the St Mary Hill fair  Uncle George could be seen coming along Cowbridge Road with up to six horses tied head to tail. They were being delivered to buyers. Farmers would allow him to place the horses in a field for the night whilst George  would sleep in the barn on sweet hay. He always smelt of sweet hay. We would not see him for months then here he would be walking along with hundreds of conkers strung round his neck in the autumn. Another time he would have a large red handkerchief full of mushroom buttons, that mother would pickle. Yet again he would have lots of blackberries. He would stay with us for a few days then be gone again. Each Christmas he spent with us. Then one day he arrived with severe stomach pains, was taken to what is now St David's Hospital where he died and was buried in the family grave at Llandaff Cathedral. He was a lovely character.

Opposite us was Gray Street. On the one corner in Cowbridge Road was Mr Grey the Butcher and on the other was Green's the Baker's and Confectioners. Mr Gray became Mayor of Cardiff. He was much respected and was an elder of The Hope Baptist Chapel which has now been rebuilt. The Green family had their bakery behind the shop and it is still there. The shop is now called Franklyn's and I believe are married into the Green family. The quality of their bread and pastries continues to be first class. I can recall a funny happening when my father bought a billy-goat without telling Mother. He had it tied to the wheel of a cart in the yard when mother returned home. As soon as she entered she wanted to know what the awful smell was. There was a soap factory at the other end of Gray Street which was bad enough when they were boiling up fats for soap, but this was worse and more pungent. She traced it to the goat, untied the animal and let it loose through the stable door. The goat was pleased smelling the lovely aroma coming from Greens. He rushed in, the customers rushed out, and my father had a nice bill to pay for the damage done by the goat. The goat was rounded up and taken to a field that we kept horses in at Leckwith. My father had a well dug in the field. One of the horses fell in and was brought out with a crane. More expense.

The War Office.

In Leckwith Road was the Canton Cross Vaults. In the entrance yard were three very fine chestnut trees. They grew so big that they had to be cut down. Now in the Smoke Room used to collect a lot of old joshers who used to argue about the way the Boer war was being conducted by Lord Roberts and General Buller. Hot arguments took place so the other customers named the room "The War Office". Later on the pub itself was called by the nickname. Albert Glaves was the landlord and was a popular man. Behind the counter was an unusual fitting. A room above the bar was called the Spirits Room. In it was a ¼ cask of whisky, one of rum and one of Gin. From this room thin pipes joined the casks to taps in the Bar. A drips tray made of pewter was beneath the taps and a shutter could be locked across the taps to stop anyone helping themselves to a drink on the quiet. I can also remember a house that had a mahogany cabinet that had tins of ten shillings and tins containing twenty shillings in them. If a golden sovereign was tendered for a drink (there was no pound notes in those days) the sovereign was put into a slot and that allowed a tin with a pounds worth of silver to be removed. This idea seems to have been the forerunner of the vendor machine.

Pub Entertainers etc.

Charlie Mc Cann had a banjo. He was middle aged, round of feature, with a straw hat and would regail the customers with popular songs like "Riding on top of the tram". One verse went like this :-

"The seats are so small and there's not much to pay
You sit close together and spoon all the way
For many a Miss became Mrs they say
Through riding on top of the tram."

Claude the Artist.

He was a tall man with a very simple nature. In the summer he would be seen in Llandaff Fields by the drinking fountain where there was a good view of Llandaff Cathedral. This he could draw well on a plain postcard which he would sell for a copper or two. In the winter he would draw the outside of shops around Canton and would sometimes de likenesses which he often sold. He was simple and likeable.

Deaf & Dumb Piddy-Widdy

I can remember when a prank was played upon him. He was given a pint of beer with a live frog in it. He took a deep drink when, to his dismay, the frog jumped out. The poor chap's squeals were pityful to hear.

Fitzgerald who sold china from a two wheeled cart.

He would bring china for sale in the Bar and had a knack of banging the plates on the counter, hard. Nothing happened but if a customer tried the plate would smash. His cart was always full and he could just jump up and sit on the china with his legs dangling over the side of the cart. He never seemed to break anything even when the cart went over pot holes in the road. He also sold chamber pots. One day he was asked to show a chamber pot in the bar. Then a customer told Langey that he could make up a drink that (although everything was wholesome) Langey would not drink. A bet was made and the drink was produced and consisted of a pint of beer, 4 shelled oysters, 2 sausages, cooked, 1 black pudding. Langey won his bet.

The "try-your-strength" machine.

One day when Langey was in the bar a man arrived with a "Try your strength" machine on his shoulder. Strongly made of brass and wood, a person stood on the platform and for a penny could pull the handle up so that the needle showed how many pounds were registered. A penny a go, Langey stood on the platform, spat on his hands and pulled.  The customers egged him on, then the veins stood out on his neck, the needle went round to danger, a funny spring breaking noise was heard and the owner was out of business. Weeping quietly he took the remains home.

Another chap used to turn up with a long plank on his shoulder. On it was a row of pudding basins. He would tune them by putting water in some of them, then play tunes on them.

Mathews the Sweep and the Canton Poet.

Mathews was a good man. On each side of his truck he had the brass plate with his name and trade on it, nicely polished. Well, one day it was piled up for Mathews and the Poet would push the truck with the brushes aboard, all the way to London from The Cross Inn. They posed outside the Inn whilst the photo was taken with a large stand camera.. Off they went with most of the Canton children following as far as the Castle. The next day they were back in Canton. They managed to get as far as Newport then felt tired and returned by train. A gold watch was going to be presented to them but it was returned to the Watch Maker. Who intended to wear it I have no idea.

There was a mystery about the Canton Poet. He was once, apparently, in the legal profession and could write in a good copper plate script. He was in much demand for writing Births, Marriages and deaths in family bibles. I never heard that he had ever written a poem/ He wore a morning coat with striped trousers, rather greasy, and was always cheerful.

Mr Phillips the Pork Butcher.

He had a first class business and was the first man in Canton to own a car. How we children used to hang around until it started. Out would come Mr & Mrs Phillips dressed for the part, long dust coats and caps, goggles, whilst Mrs Phillips would wear a veil over her hat and face. The car had plenty of polished brass upon it and on the dash board was a row of valves like the stops on a cornet. Each of these valves controlled the supply of oil to different parts of the engine. On the dash board floor was a a large battery. Turning the large handle on the front was some job but eventually it started at about four miles an hour in a cloud of smoke; Hours later on one occasion I saw it being pulled home by a farm horse.

Mr Benger the Greengrocer.

It seems strange to know that the only business I know that is being run in the same manner as when I was a boy belongs to Mr Benger. The son, who went to Severn Road School, is now in charge. The layout of vegetables seems to be the same as seventy years ago.

Harris the Grocers were a good family business noted for the quality of the smoked bacon. A large metal chamber behind the shop was filled with hanging sides of bacon; then oak sawdust would be set smouldering in the bottom of the chamber and the iron door clamped shut. Many hours later the smoking process was completed and the cabinet cooled off, the bacon was ready for sale.

Mr Spicer the Sadler

How interesting it was to see a sadler at work. The leather to be stitched would be held in a giant clamp held between the legs. The sewing twine was waxed and the two ends were joined to a hogs hair. A hole was then bored through the two pieces of leather and the two hairs passed through each side then pulled taut

The Blacksmith had his smithy in a lane off Leckwith Road. He was an artist shoeing horses, repairing cart wheels, farm machinery and ploughs, and also beautiful ornamental gates. Welding was unknown at that time. He wouldmake children's hoops out of round iron rods. We enjoyed watching him work with all the sparks flying and the steam hissing when the horse shoes were being cooled off in the water tank.

Street traders etc.

The first in the morning would be selling hot rolls at ½ d each from a tray covered with a clean cloth on the head. He would call at the pubs. Then there was the Cockle Girl dressed in Welsh shawl and apron. The cockles were in a wooden tub and was sold by the saucerful. Vinegar and pepper was provided.

Butcher's boys carried joints in a four handled wooden tray on the shoulder.

Butchers themselves wore striped aprons upon which a knife steel hanging from a leather belt. They also wore straw hats. As there was no deep freeze the Hotels were supplied with fresh meat every day.

Ice was delivered dayly in large slabs and placed on the pavement outside the hotel butchers. It was then broken up and placed in the top tray of the cold box where it slowly melted around the sides and dripped into the bottom tray. On Saturday nights all meat and unsold fish was sold off cheaply. Each night buns cake and bread left over was also sold off. How much easier it is for Hotels to cater with turkeys chicken and lamb always in deep freeze to meet any catering occasion.

Lighting in the homes and businesses was by gas. Bedrooms were usually lit by candles. Each night men with long metal torches would go to each lamp, turn on the gas then push up a large glass marble in the bottom of the lantern and light the lamp gas mantle. When the torch was withdrawn, the glass marble sealed the hole so that the wind could not blow out the light or break the delicate mantle. Later on, when Electricity came into use, arc lighting was used. Carbon Rods were used, arcing taking place between the ends of the rods. It gave off a fierce light similar to the modern arc-welding light. For outdoor stalls napthalene flares were used. A strong smell similar to paraffin was given off in clouds of smoke.

Cabs had well made candle lamps, one on each side. A small red glass window was sometimes built into the back of them.

Policemen carried lanterns at night with a bullseye lens in front and a shutter to seal off the light when it was not required.

News was cheap for the Western Mail was a penny and the Echo an halfpenny. [Last Updated : 12 February 2004 - Gareth Hicks]