Cardiff has felt like this quite a few times in its long history. And today it’s feeling like this all over again.

Boom towns stimulate.  Living in them we get a sense of excitement, of furiously going somewhere, of being something.  Cardiff has felt like this quite a few times in its long history. And today it’s feeling like this all over again.

I’m on the harbour front in the Bay seeing some of the best of it. Europe’s most liveable capital city[1], and, since 2016, the one with the greatest increase in popularity as a destination[2].  It’s here all around me. New build still happening in all directions. Ten years back, following the impounding of the waters by the Barrage and the opening of both the Senedd and the Wales Millennium Centre, I asked a local developer if the Bay was now complete. Not for another twenty years, he told me, there’s space and opportunity enough here for at least that. 

Booms arrive at places where opportunity presents itself, where money can be turned, where great fortunes can be amassed overnight. All you need is the suggestion that this is happening and the rush will begin.

Cardiff's new horizon

Before the Romans arrived here in AD 55 to build their fort on the Severn shore the locals, the Silures, had a couple of huts, some fishing henges, and a place to launch boats. But the needs of the invaders presented opportunity. First a village and then a town accumulated as natives learned to offer the services that the Roman garrison commander did not. Food, drink, entertainment, women.  Cardiff boomed. 

Not that the place was called Cardiff then. The Romans knew it as Tamium, a name they also used for the river. However, the Antonine Itinerary, the third century survey of the Roman Empire’s roads, lists this thriving fort and village as Bovium. Nomenclature is unclear. The twelfth century Liber Landavensis[3], The Book of Llandaff, suggests that the river might have at one time been called the Tâm. There is fog. I love that.

The whole habitation, of course, could have been called Roath, a village a short distance east of the Taff estuary. I suggested this to much derision in Real Cardiff. It’s an idea that legendary Cardiff historian and compiler of the Cardiff Records, J. Hobson Matthews, proposed back in 1901[4]. I see from my latest council tax demand that the idea has not caught on.

Cardiff’s booms of the dark ages, if it had any, go largely unrecorded. By 1262, almost two hundred years after the Norman invasion and more than seven hundred after the Romans had left, the population of Kardivia[5] had climbed from the few hundred who must have lived in Bovium to a dizzying 2020. The Black Death of 1348 and the rampaging of Owain Glyndŵr then knocked that  back to around 1200. This was a collapse, a great shrinkage, when Kerdif’s early High Streete, East Streetwardee, West Streete and South Streete[6] between them could only house as many as walk round Roath Park Lake on a hot bank holiday. 

By 1801, the date of the first census, the population of market traders and sheep skin exporters at what had now become known as Cardiff had crawled up again to 1870. If you included outlying villages such as Roath, Lisvane and Llandaff, however, then the figure would hit 3427[7]. Not a huge number by contemporary standards but it was a new clustering of people. The Glamorgan Canal, which had first reached the sea near the present Clarence Road Bridge in 1794, had a lot to do with this fresh and soon to become unstoppable blossoming.

The root lay with the industrial revolution and the manufacture of first iron and then steel at the heads of the south Wales valleys. This was closely followed by the mining of coal, on what turned out to be an epic scale, right down those valleys. Without these newly flourishing commodities the boom of the town just beyond the valleys’ southern extremity would never have happened.

By 1851, with the Glamorgan Canal full of barges, Bute’s first dock functioning, and the Taff Vale Railway bringing down ceaseless trucks of steam coal and iron ingots, the Cardiff population had risen by more than sevenfold to 26,630. This was what former First Minister the late Rhodri Morgan calls the heroic period. The rocky path to Welsh supremacy, in terms of population numbers anyway, had now become a rolling road. By 1901 that population had swollen to 172,629. By 1951 it had reached  267,356. From a village where everyone would have known everyone else to a city where you could have an affair and get away with it in less than a hundred and fifty years. I made this suggestion to a group of local citizens gathered in Penarth a few years back. There was a small silence and then a woman at the back put her hand up. “On, no you can’t”, she said.

Population growth since the nineteen fifties has continued. Perhaps not at the scale witnessed during the great industrial age but in fits and great bursts nonetheless. In 2001 Cardiff was 292,150.  Six years later, just before the financial crash, it had risen by more than 10% to 328,200[8]. Certainly a place big enough to get lost in, but still eminently knowable.  

More recent population figures are harder to settle on. Estimates put the city at 358,400 in 2016 with continuing growth at well above the national average projected for the decade to come.  Cardiff’s Local Development Plan[9] for the period is predicated on a population that will top 412,801[10] by 2026. This figure does have an element of elasticity about it, however, and has been challenged  a number of times. But whichever way it’s looked at it remains a substantial figure.

[1] Cardiff Council’s current promotional slogan.
[2] Data from travel search engine Kayak shows that Cardiff’s popularity as a holiday destination has more than tripled since 2016 with an increase of 223%.
[3] Liber Landavensis or Llyfr Llandaf, the Book of Llandaff, a mainly Latin compilation of 500 years of Llandaff diocesan records and is one of the great early books of Wales.
[4] Cardiff Naturalists’ Society Reports and Transactions, Vol 33, (1900-1901) Matthews, J Hobson,  “The Place names of the Cardiff District”.
[5] Book of Llandaff.
[6] Williams, Moelwyn I, “Cardiff – Its People and its Trade – 1660-1720”, Morganwwg – Transactions of the Glamorgan Local History Society, Vol 7, 1963.
[7] Williams, Moelwyn I,.
[8] Source – Office of National Statistics
[9] Cardiff Local Development Plan 2006-2026 Deposit Plan.
[10] Cardiff Local Development Plan Background technical Paper Number One – Population and Housing.  Updated May, 2014.   

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