Roath Park was the first publicly-owned park in Cardiff and was built on former bogland donated by the Marquis of Bute and other landowners to the Corporation in 1887. Constructed between 1887 and 1894, the park was designed and laid out by the Borough Engineer William Harpur and by William Pettigrew, Cardiff Corporation's first Head Gardener and later Parks Superintendent.
Demand for a public open space in Roath lead the Council to decide in 1882 to set up a special committee which would approach Lord Tredegar, one of the landowners in the Roath district, about obtaining a suitable site. Discussions took place with Lord Tredegar concerning the land adjoining Roath Mill, but there was an alternative suggestion of a site between Penylan Road and Fairoak Farm, where the Marquis of Bute was the major landowner. Both locations were inspected by the Corporation, which chose the Penylan Road and Fairoak option. When Lord Bute was approached he offered to give the site to the Corporation on condition that other local landowners also contributed.
The special Roath Park committee became a permanent sub-committee of the Council, the Parks and Open Spaces Committee, which oversaw the planning and development. The scheme agreed in 1887 was for 121 acres and initially included a second artificial lake where the Wild Garden was eventually established. Prior to formulating his plans, the Borough Engineer was directed to visit some municipal parks in England to see how they were laid out, and he reported to the Parks Committee in October 1887 on the outcome of his tour of 32 parks in 15 towns. In parks at this time the emphasis was on creating walks but not sports facilities.
The Committee sought to borrow £40,000 for the development of the park, though the Council reduced this to £30,000. There was an unsuccessful attempt to persuade landowners who had donated land (principally Lord Bute) to contribute to the costs of road building. The final cost came to £70,000. The Marchioness of Bute cut the first turf in a ceremony on 24th August 1887 in what became the Recreation Ground, but detailed plans were not finally approved until April 1888. A deputation from the Cardiff Naturalists' Society requested the inclusion of a Botanical Garden.
The desirability of engaging a landscape gardener was considered in 1887 but this idea was abandoned as too expensive, and an invitation was issued for competitive entries for landscape designs. Seven were submitted and two were awarded prizes but no one scheme was entirely carried out. It was decided to appoint a Head Gardener of the Public Parks and Open Spaces of the Borough to work under the direction of the Borough Engineer. William Wallace Pettigrew was appointed from the 31st July 1891.
Construction work started with road-making at the southern end, around the area that was to become the Pleasure Garden and Recreation Ground. The contractor, Messrs. Logan & Hemingway, was in the process of completing the roads in early 1890. This was followed by the diversion of Roath Brook to create the flat grassed space that became the Recreation Ground. By January 1891 fencing had been erected around the southern portion of the park and levelling of the ground was in progress.
The Parks Committee approved plans for the northern section of the park in December 1890. A contract worth over £27,000 for the formation of roads and construction of the lake and embankment was awarded to Mr. James Allen in February 1891. This work proceeded rapidly during 1891, with more than 100 men being employed daily. By the end of 1892 the roads and many of the paths had been laid out, shrubs and trees had been planted, and at the north end of the Lake the five islands had been created to provide homes for waterfowl. At the southern end of the Lake, material obtained by excavating for the roads was used to create the dam (later known as the Embankment and now the Promenade). The Lake was filled with water in mid December 1893. It was half a mile end to end and 1.25 miles in circumference, with a depth varying between two feet and fourteen feet plus.
By 1894, the Pleasure Garden was finished and comprised 30 acres laid out with flower beds, shrubs and saplings. Parts of the Botanic Garden were also complete, with planting being carried out on a scientific and educational basis as urged by the Cardiff Naturalists' Society. Many of the plants were donated from Kew Gardens. In May 1894 four internal bridges were under construction, two each in the Recreation Ground and the Botanic Garden, and a propagating house was being built in the Nursery section at the south end of Botanic Garden. Also during May the Parks Committee arranged for 50 pleasure boats to be provided, five each from ten contractors, and on the 21st May five park keepers were appointed.
In 1888 it was proposed to call the new park Lady Bute Park, but a decision was deferred and the name Roath Park was agreed in March 1894. Roath Park was officially opened on the 20th June 1894 by the Earl of Dumfries, the son of the Marquis of Bute, on his thirteenth birthday. There was a public procession followed by aquatic sports held on the Lake. The Wild Garden at the north end of the Lake was developed later, and was not opened until 1896. The most northerly section of the Park known as the Oval was formally named Llandennis Gardens in 1898.
In December 1904 the Parks Superintendent reported: "The total amount of Capital expended to date on Roath Park is £60,461-15s-9d, and includes the cost of forming nearly four miles of Carriageway outside the Park, constructing a Lake with an area of 32 acres, Boating and Bathing Stages, Refreshment, and Dwelling Houses, Works Depot, Stables, Aquarium, Bandstand, five Shelters, and six large Urinals, etc, etc. The area of this Park exclusive of Roads is 100 acres."
In May 1905 an official Guide to Roath Park and Catalogue of Plants in Botanical Garden was commissioned by the Parks Committee and written by W.W. Pettigrew. It was published by the Western Mail Ltd, which agreed to print 2000 copies for £12-15s.
The ongoing development of Roath Park featured regularly in the monthly reports of the Superintendent to the Parks and Open Spaces Committee. Those for the period January 1908 to October 1912 inclusive are available in the Cardiff Parks Superintendent's Report Book, a handwritten book in which the reports were drafted before being presented to the Committee.
During the 1914-18 war the Parks Committee agreed that certain beds and plots in Roath Park would be used to grow vegetables and a border would be cultivated as a model allotment. The Recreation Ground was used for allotments, which remained after the war until 1920, when the Parks Committee served notices on the allotment holders to terminate their tenancies. During the war the park was a regular venue for events organised for war-related purposes. In June 1915 the Council agreed that a concert could be held at Roath Park "to raise money for comforts for the troops”. This was the first of a series of such events held in the park at no charge to the promoters. In August 1915 a carnival organised by the Glamorgan branch of the British Red Cross Society was held in the park. A fete was held in June 1917 in aid of the Disabled Soldiers and Sailors (Cardiff) Fund. Attractions included the band of the Welsh Guards, boat racing events and stalls selling fancy goods. The report in the Western Mail also noted that "the Y.M.C.A. tent for soldiers was opened, as last year, at the lake side." (A postcard showing the YMCA tent on the west bank of the lake can be seen on this site.) After the war two captured German guns were placed in the park on the promenade.
Entries from the 1938 Inventory of Parks Buildings and Equipment can be found under the appropriate section, namely: Botanic Garden, Fairoak Depot, Lake, Llandennis Gardens, Pleasure Garden, Recreation Ground and Wild Gardens. The complete 1938 Inventory of Parks Buildings and Equipment is available in HTML and PDF format.
During the 1939-45 war there was extensive ARP (Air Raid Precautions) presence in Roath Park. In 1939 there was an ARP Wardens Post on the boating stage and another in the Wild Gardens. The bowls pavilion in the Pleasure Garden was occupied by ARP Wardens in early 1940, causing the Parks Committee to take steps to restore access for the bowling season in May 1940. The Recreation Ground served as a barrage balloon depot in September 1939 as well as accommodating allotments and several ARP buildings, one of which after the war became the Roath Park Recreation Centre. As in the 1914-19 war, Roath Park was a venue for war-related events, such as a civil defence gala day held on August 1st 1942.
Sources of Information
In general, the information in this section is taken from A. A. Pettigrew, The Public Parks and Recreation Grounds of Cardiff, Volumes 2 & 3.
Other sources are: