1905: Cardiff becomes a city

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Most of us are so used to the knowledge that Cardiff is not just any old city but also the capital city of Wales, that we are probably lulled into the mistake of thinking it has always been that way. No so. Cardiff did not become a city until 28 October 1905. And it was only proclaimed the capital of Wales in 1955.

Cardiff Castle (photo: Esther Illan)

These days Cardiff has a population in excess of 300,000 and is acknowledged as the 10th largest city in the UK. However, it was not until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution that the place really began to grow and develop.

The history of Cardiff goes back many years, of course. Long barrows at outlying places such as Tinkinswood and Coedkernew show that Neolithic people had a significant presence in the area, and by the first century AD the region was largely populated by the Silures tribe. But it was with the arrival of the Romans in around 75 AD that the community which was later to emerge as the city of Cardiff began to establish itself.

The Romans built a fortified settlement on the banks of the River Taff and based a fleet there in order to patrol and protect the Severn estuary and the western sea lanes. The Roman fortress probably fell into disuse at some time late in the second century as, by then, the Silures had been pacified and, with nearby Caerleon well established and defended, it was simply not needed.

The settlement around the old fort continued to thrive and grow, however. Tradesmen established their shops and businesses and, rather than return to their places of origin, retired Roman soldiers settled down to life in the area. The remains of a villa at Ely to the west of the city, exactly the type of dwelling a retired soldier would build, seems to show that this was now quite a peaceful and settled part of the Roman province.

When the Normans came to the area in 1081 they immediately set about fortifying their newly acquired territory and built a castle within the walls of the old Roman fort. Although the castle itself was substantially altered by the third Marquis of Bute and his architect William Burges at the end of the 19th century, the remains of the old Norman keep, as everyone knows, can still be seen today inside the newer castle walls at the top of St Mary's Street.

In the Middle Ages Cardiff was a port and trading centre, with a population of about 1,500 making it a significant and sizeable community. In 1404 Owain Glyndwr burned the town and castle during his rebellion against the English crown but the wooden houses were soon replaced and in 1542 Cardiff was created a free borough.

When the Industrial Revolution began to change the face of south Wales, Cardiff - strategically placed at the bottom of the coal and iron valleys - was in the best possible position to benefit. Before long canals and railways, in particular the Taff Vale Railway, were linking this coastal community with the industrial hinterland. And with the railways and industrial development came wealth on a scale previously unimagined.

To begin with Cardiff was somewhat overshadowed by the burgeoning iron town of Merthyr Tydfil and it was only when the Marquis of Bute built his first dock in the 1830s that the place really began to develop and expand. By the time of the 1881 census Cardiff had overtaken both Merthyr and Swansea in terms of population.

These days Cardiff is not just the capital of Wales, it is also the home of the Welsh Assembly Government, the magnificent Millennium Stadium and the largest waterfront development in Europe.

A university college was established in the town - as it then was - in 1893 but while Cardiff might be able to boast museums, churches and cathedrals, it was denied the honour of hosting the National Library of Wales - supposedly because too large a proportion of the population was non-Welsh! It's a great story but how much truth is in the statement remains to be seen.

The origins of the name Cardiff are a little clouded. Most probably it derives from the Welsh/Brythonic name Caerdydd - "fort on the Taff". It has been suggested that the name might originate from the name Caer Didi, the fort of Didius, but this explanation or suggestion had been discounted and even ridiculed of late.

Edward VII gave city status to Cardiff on 28 October 1905 in recognition of the fact that it was one of the great economic and industrial successes of the age. Despite the Depression years, when the docks and the shipping lines that operated from them suffered incredible hardship, and despite the rigours of German bombing raids during World War Two, Cardiff endured.

As the largest and most significant centre of population in Wales, the city was proclaimed capital of the country on 20 December 1955. It was just in time for the Empire Games - the precursor of the Commonwealth Games - which were held in Cardiff in 1958. Now one of the fastest growing economic communities in the country it remains a vibrant and welcoming environment, of which all Wales should be proud.

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