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Darkest Cardiff - A Peek into Hell: Injustice, Poverty, and the Exploitation of Women: Wordcatcher History

Darkest Cardiff - A Peek into Hell: Injustice, Poverty, and the Exploitation of Women: Wordcatcher History

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Darkest Cardiff - A Peek into Hell: Injustice, Poverty, and the Exploitation of Women: Wordcatcher History

250 pages
3 hours
Aug 5, 2020


'Cardiff, the greatest hell on earth' was a description given to the city in 1908 by Salvationist John Stanton. It seemed to refer to women, and to that end the book examines the lifestyles of the most arrested, the most impoverished and the most maligned of Cardiff's back street women.

A perfect storm hit Cardiff in the 19th century transforming it from a small village to major industrial centre in a few decades. With that came tens of thousands of incomers. Ships packed the new docks, and sailors with disposable income swarmed the Cardiff streets. The result was initially catastrophic. The small band of Cardiff police could not cope with the ensuing drunkenness and violence.

The author unearths the most extreme characters, such as Maggie Sawdust and Muscular Mary. There is also an examination of Wales' most arrested woman - an alcoholic with over 500 court appearances to her name. She had an unusual history compared to other multi-arrested women of that era.

What was it that got those women into the most savage of lifestyles? In the author's mind, it was social injustice and the need simply to survive newly industrialising Cardiff.

'Darkest Cardiff' was an epithet given by the Victorian media to the squalid and poverty-ridden areas of area to the south of today's Queen Street. Drunkenness, violence, prostitution, child poverty and exploitation was the norm. Streets such as Mary Ann Street, Whitmore Lane, Charlotte Street, and Bute Street would promote terror in the minds of people living on Cardiff's north side. One chapter compares two streets a few hundred yards apart: the differences are stark.

The book also looks at Victorian attitudes to the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'.

The chapter, 'The Splott Chemist and the Schoolgirl', is an example of how male superiority was seen in many quarters as sacrosanct. Women were second class citizens, as illustrated by the official business of Cardiff Town always being undertaken by men. The councillors, the magistrates, the jurors, the judges were a male-only domain. This influenced courtroom attitudes and sentencing.

Murder was commonplace and so was crime in general. One of the principal triggers to crime was alcohol. Gin palaces, shabeens, licenced ale and beer houses were jammed together in small areas, such as the newly named 'Tiger Bay', Whitmore Lane, the Hayes Bridge, and Adam Street to name just a few. Meanwhile on Cardiff's north side, the establishment and the new middle class were enjoying a 'champagne lifestyle' by comparison. Even some Temperance hotel owners became slaves to the money to be made by allowing their rooms to be used for prostitution. Tresillian Terrace brothels are examined. Children who spent their early lives in 'hell houses' and experienced Cardiff south side street life, were in most cases destined to become victims of the times.

By now a city in the 1950s, Cardiff still had its areas of prostitution, but these were mild in comparison to just a few decades previously.

John F. Wake has collaborated with others who knew and worked the streets, and also poets Cheryl O'Brien and Arthur Cole with their twenty-first century impressions of a bygone era.
'With squalor rampant, childhoods were lost, whoring their future, to hell with the cost'. (Cole).
'So, in the gutter she plies her trade, she's every whore that poverty made'. (O'Brien).
Laurie Clements knew the Cardiff old town areas well; in fact, he was born there. He adds clarity in describing the internal description of his old home.

Aug 5, 2020

About the author

Talked on Wales and it's attractions around the world from Washington DC to Dubai. The author of plays performed at various Cardiff locations and the Edinburgh Festival.  VIP-chauffeured many world famous people on their visits to Wales.  Joined the Cardiff City Police in 1965 and posted to Bute Street (Tiger Bay) police station. Was a Detective Inspector in South Wales Police. John has recently undertaken lectures on his books, 'THE CRUEL STREETS REVISITED' and 'CARDIFF. THOSE CRUEL AND SAVAGE STREETS'.

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Darkest Cardiff - A Peek into Hell - John F. Wake

Publisher’s Introduction

John and I have a long-standing relationship as author and publisher with seven titles already in print. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak we had established an effective workflow that has now been disrupted.

Under normal circumstances this book would have been published in June 2020, not August. It would have had more rounds of editing, and more illustrations and photos. It would have had a physical edition in print, not just a release as an ebook. And it would have been been launched at an event we’d secured with the kind assistance of Motorpoint Arena - the building that now stands on the very location of some of the wildest incidents in the book.

But, these are not normal circumstances, and it has put pressures on us all. While it may lack some of the content and attention of previous books, we are getting it out to meet the demand from readers and those hungry to read about the history of Cardiff and Victorian Britain.

We can promise, however, that as soon as we are able there will be a second edition that fills in the gaps, and real-world events where John can once again present in person to his avid readers.

David Norrington

Managing Director

Wordcatcher Publishing Group Ltd

24th July 2020


A cartoonist for a local newspaper of the Victorian period was given carte blanche to illuminate darkest Cardiff. Highlighted were: Mary Ann Street, crime, filth, outrage, robbery, disease, prostitution. In image, boxing, knife fight, people drunk in doorways. Is that what it was really like in old Cardiff?

I have tried to keep the narrative within this book as factual as I possibly can. In history everything is open to preconception and debate. Errors made then are errors made now. Opinions then become ‘facts’ today.

This book is concentrated on women, bad or sad, wicked or misunderstood, in Victorian and Edwardian Cardiff, with the occasional glance at the 1960s. In most cases, it seems the so-called wicked women were alcoholics and prostitutes, entrapped in a world of violence. Yet, there had to be reasons why there was so much violence surrounding the destitute, the unfortunate. That reason appears in nearly all cases to be poverty. Instability of back-street life and the tatterdemalion (tattered or dilapidated) influences on young children were overwhelming. It was all they saw; it was the standards they adhered too. They would grow up too fast into a world that no human should ever have to enter, let alone in those early years of life.

The term ‘unfortunate’ was a regular name given to destitute or impoverished women, either living on the streets or in a Workhouse, or living with other ‘dregs of society’ as some saw them. They were identified by their dress and general demeanour. The term was often applied to a prostitute or loose woman lacking morals.

There were of course men working in the sex world of the time, but they were hardly ever mentioned. This was indeed difficult to talk and write about, as, of course, homosexuality was illegal and seen as gross religious misconduct. During the entire existence of Cardiff Borough and City Police (1837-1969) homosexuality was deemed against the law and offences such as importuning in a gents’ public toilet, saw many men being arrested and fined. This law changed in 1967 but was not enforced for several years.

Men going for women was the norm. There was a belief that men needed sex more than women and that urge had to be satisfied by whatever means.

The activities and laws regarding male and female sex workers in the twenty-first century are not highlighted. The period covered here runs alongside that of Cardiff’s police force, 1837-1969. We mostly look at the injustices of forcing women into prostitution in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What a different and uncompromising world it was then in comparison to today’s enlightened attitudes.

Mrs George Norman, in a magazine in 1908 wrote:

So long as they have food to eat, money to bank, and a comfortable chair in which to spend their evenings, many unintelligent people have no objection to spending their lives grovelling in moral and abject slavery. Few seem to think people marry nowadays for love; but many for what is only a passing passion, a temporary fascination.

In upper class society the average of successful marriages is high; and this it is suggested, is because the upper class do not ride their marriages to death. A certain measure of liberty is given and expected; respect for each other’s individuality is maintained.

It appears that there were only 900 divorces in Britain in 1907. If true, it is a staggeringly low statistic. The price of a divorce at the time was approximately £100, an unobtainable cost to most people. Mix that with the religious shame that would be experienced, meant men and women did not, or could not, officially separate. Therefore, many men were out looking for sex, and women, desperate for money, were there to give it.

One wonders if modern street viragos are in any way equal to the wicked women encountered within the pages of this book. Their world was described in the Cardiff Victorian news sheets as ‘Darkest Cardiff’. The question is, were those Victorian women mad, bad or sad?

The social injustice of the times, exemplified within these pages, is palpable.



In the older, larger towns and cities of the United Kingdom, there was perhaps a slow evolution into the scourge of poverty, prostitution and street madness. But in new towns that exploded out of the industrial revolution, poverty (and all it brought with it) happened virtually overnight. To determine the causes of poverty-ridden street prostitution, we will concentrate on just one emerging town, Cardiff.

In the early nineteenth century, massive building construction took place across Britain and tens of thousands of workers poured into small towns. These workers increased the population and then moved on to pastures new. Towns and cities in Britain were attracting the navigators (navvies) who liked what they saw and stayed. In Cardiff, the construction of the Glamorgan Canal, the Bute Docks, iron works, collieries and of course, railways, were sucking in workers and their families, and many decided to stay put. They had to be housed, they had to be fed, and their children schooled, and that is where the problems started. If a worker lost his job, or drank their wages away, then the suffering transferred to the women and children.

In 1801, Cardiff was a small village. The trigger year was 1837, when the village took on the mantle of a borough as the first coal dock opened. From that point on there was a population explosion. Obviously, there were poverty-stricken families prior to that date, even going back to Roman times, but nothing on the scale that was Cardiff in the Victorian period. The reason? Coal, docks and trade.

What chance did girls have who were born into a house where prostitution was rife, parents drunk and conditions filthy? It was all they knew. Violence, or threats of it, ruled the roost and children were forced into scavenging or stealing to get food. Of course, many of the people who inhabited the back streets were not like this and did their best for their children. But the exceptions to the rule were what the police dealt with.

It is easy to imagine the effects the constant barrage of distasteful occurrences and violent altercations had on the minds of investigating police officers. They would often find young children, boys and girls, who were forced into committing or witnessing sexual acts.

Here we see the beginnings of prostitution on an industrial scale in Cardiff. It is said it had the most overt and widespread prostitution problem in South Wales from the beginning of its dedicated police force in 1837 until its demise in 1969. The dock ports of Newport, Barry and Swansea were also centres of prostitution, with the common denominator of all three being ships and sailors.

If there was a snapshot census of prostitutes working in London in early to mid-Victorian times it would be shocking. Numbers were estimated to be 50,000-100,000. That was more than the population of Cardiff between 1837 and 1901, the years Victoria was on the throne.

Research obtained from the police and town council shows there were around 1,500 women regularly engaging in sexual acts for money in the year 1863 in South Wales and Monmouthshire. It is a small number compared to the London, but the comparisons of population are extreme also. Other research puts the number of working prostitutes in Cardiff at 553, which does not include all the girls under the age of sixteen, estimated at 13.

Commentators at the time thought these figures were an extremely low estimate. Some believed the numbers were masked for political reasons. Whoever was correct, this was an awful indictment of Cardiff life in that decade amongst just one group: the working class.

The Calvinistic Forward Movement, a Christian Methodist movement that had evolved in rural Wales, had members who were working on the streets helping women from the ‘dark side’. They estimated that in the first few years of the twentieth century there were around 2,500 ‘fallen women’ in Cardiff. Many of the women were congregating in disorderly houses or brothels. The workers of the Calvinistic Forward Movement estimated there were 100-200 such houses in the south side of town. One speaker told the organisation that there were many houses unknown to the police.

The Welsh Calvinistic Movement’s annual meeting on Anglesey in 1903 was addressed by representatives of the Saltmead and Calvinistic Movement. They painted a terrible picture of debauchery in Cardiff caused by alcohol and prostitution, especially among young girls. There were hundreds of young ladies tainted with the scourge of intemperance. It was estimated that there were 300-400 girls in that area alone in need of help. Their workers patrolled day and night assisting young, drunken women.

Some women went on the game to earn money, to save, then get married. They were classified as ‘bettering themselves’ and in many ways admired in some quarters. It was the drunken, impoverished, filthy and tattered women who bore the brunt of society’s hatred. In London the smarter girls, the attractive girls, worked the rich and well-trodden areas of the West End, the less so inhabited the hovels of the industrial back lanes.

London, with its Dickensian representations of history and growth since Roman times could hardly be used as a comparison to Cardiff where in the early years of the nineteenth century there were just a few thousand inhabitants. It seems, when researching and reading about Londoners’ appetites for illicit sex, there was not a part of society that was untouched by prostitution.

We know that in 1883 there were 477 women arrested and charged with prostitution and allied offences in Cardiff. To make those figures worse, 79 of them were arrested on a Sunday! Imagine how the puritanical elite of the Cardiff establishment felt about that. Cardiff Town and its citizens were deeply religious and Sunday worship was inviolable in most households.

If one allied those figures to the ones issued on arrests for drunkenness in that year one can see life on the south side of Cardiff was difficult to say the least. There were 927 arrests for alcohol related offences in that year of 1883. No wonder! At that time there were 175 licensed public houses and 101 beer houses. 276 premises selling alcohol is breath-taking, and that does not include the illegal outlets.

Reading reports written by casual observers in the main ‘street walking’ areas of Cardiff, one imagines there is exaggeration when it came to what they saw. I can only compare it to an observer from a country village visiting the northern Bute Street (Tiger Bay) pubs in the 1960s. Pubs such as the Custom House had the ladies standing outside and mingling in the streets. In truth there was not much in that and the police and locals hardly took any notice but to a visitor it was dynamite. They would go home and tell of what they saw and gild the lily to make their experience more spectacular to their audience.

Of course, it was not only seaports that experienced poverty-induced prostitution. Although chapels were more successful in keeping morals overt via religion, in areas where population was less transient, such as mining areas within the valleys of South Wales, there are numerous examples of young women forced onto the streets simply to provide for themselves. Mary Ann Cullin (16) was given a week’s custodial sentence in Blaenavon, in Monmouthshire’s eastern valleys, for being a prostitute on the streets.

Men enjoyed sex and women were there to provide it’ was an oft-subscribed to rationale. The assumption was that men and women were different in their wants and desires. Men, under the guise of Parliament, saw women as housewives or human beings with differing needs to men. Men, having strong sexual desires, had to be catered for, sometimes clandestinely, and needed prostitutes for this purpose. Decent and God-fearing women were certainly not believed to have sexual desires as strong as men, as loving a man was singular, whereas a man could love his wife, yet might need multiple sexual partners to keep him satisfied, especially after a hard day’s work. Some may think this is a generalisation, but one has only to read and research the times to realise that behind the moral ‘backstop’ of many (not all) high ranking Victorian men were a little ‘loose principled desires’.

To précis the morality of the man-versus-woman sexual needs principle, Victorians believed that men were seduced more by women and usually acceded to that sexual temptation. Women were not tempted as such by sexual inducements, especially if they loved their husbands. It appears that most women did love and respect their husbands, and therefore they did not stray. Men, on the other hand, could have a mistress or concubine without affecting his love for his wife. So, it seems, everyone was happy.

If we remove the upper-class dalliances with high-class mistresses and look at the women being used by men, we find it was predominantly women from the lower classes who became prostitutes.

A survey into the background of convicted prostitutes was carried out at a Victorian women’s prison. It becomes patently obvious that prostitution was concentrated in the working class, though middle- or upper-class men used their services. The survey came to an obvious conclusion: 90% of the prostitutes were from homes of labourers and unskilled workers. The women had been either unemployed, or in low paid and unskilled jobs, such as cleaning, hawking or charring.

Ugly Annie, Maggie Sawdust, Rams Eyes, Hopeful Hannah, Kitty Pig Eyes, Lousy Lizzie were nicknames given to a few of these women of the streets, and more on their accounts follow later in this book. There are others, however, whose stories are unprintable in a book. It appears that time and again, Victorian society would kick women when they were down, especially if they were living in the ghettos. Yet, it was not just the rich who enjoyed demeaning poverty-ridden women, the working class did it too.

Maggie Sawdust had a wooden leg and was often seen crawling along a gutter after losing it in some quarrel or fight the night before. Locals who stole the leg teased and degraded Maggie, if it was possible to degrade this sad individual anymore. Charlotte Street was her domain, a street so tough and riddled with disorder, that it was demolished in the mid-1880s. Comprehensive details relating to Maggie are not verifiable but it appears she had been homeless and poverty-stricken most of her life. Prostitution was her only answer. The money obtained was most probably spent on alcohol: pure escapism.

In the twenty-first century, poet Cheryl O’Brien puts Maggie’s life into stark reality:

Do you hear the tap of her drunken gait?

Whitmore Lane’s queen of ill found fate

Maggie Sawdust’s wooden leg

Guides her home to infested bed

Drunk and whoring in the gutter

Crawling home to beg for supper

Maggie Sawdust has no pride

Will never be a blushing bride

An army of Salvationists

Can’t pull her from a sailor’s fist

So in the gutter she plies her trade

She’s every whore that poverty made.



Faces from the Cardiff Police Court 1896

Today, when hearing the word prostitute, most will say the term defines a woman who stands on street corners and approaches male car drivers offering sex in return for cash. A little simplistic, but one can see how that view has become the norm, as that does indeed happen. There is, however, a major difference between nineteenth-century street women and today’s sex workers. Those Victorian back-street ghettos bred the most destructive, demeaning and squalid lifestyles for women from which there was no escape.

Others will quote the term sex worker as a better definition of a prostitute and describe high-class and low-class call girls. Sex workers today, their lifestyles and stories are worthy, in many cases we are told, of respect. The stigma in recent decades has been lifted somewhat and the workers are perceived as providing a service and earning livelihoods in a professional and organised way. However, that was not always the case.

When society is under deep and sustained pressure, anything is possible. Pressure on an impoverished society in any country or culture can lead to the most criminal or outrageous of actions. It can lead to martial law or biased Acts of Parliament with no compassion, condemning

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