Plans to create Sophia Gardens began in 1854 and were first described in 1857. Entitled "A Public Walk for Cardiff" the report outlined the proposals to create an ornamental walk and pleasure ground covering 24 acres, unlike anything else in Wales, and an example to other towns. The walk was to be some 640 yards, the length of the park from north to south and lined with lime trees. At the northerly end would be an ornamental lake which was to include small islands of flowers and shrubs, and over which the walk would be carried by a bridge "of highly artistic design". The plans also provided for a new road out to Llandaff - Cathedral Road - "with a long line of beautiful villa residences". Construction of this was reported to be in progress in March 1857.
The park was opened to the public by Sophia, Marchioness of Bute in 1858, at which time the Bute Trustees (acting on behalf of the Third Marquis who had not yet come of age) announced that Sophia Gardens would be freely available to all the people of Cardiff, while the expense of maintaining it would be met by the Bute Estate. The Cardiff Times of 5th May 1860 reported that the Trustees intended nearly to double the size of the park by the addition of an athletic field to the north. This was shown as a recreation ground on the 1901 Ordnance Survey map. Until this field was added, the lake was at the northerly limit of the park. There was a lodge there, and another at the southern (Cowbridge Road) end, the main entrance to Sophia Gardens. In 1860 a fountain was added in the southern part of the park. A bandstand was not provided until 1898, though band performances first took place in the summer of 1860. Conveniently situated close to the town centre, and as Cardiff's only public park until the 1890s, Sophia Gardens became a regular venue for concerts, military parades, sporting occasions and other events.
The popularity of of the park is shown by a an editorial comment in the Cardiff Times & South Wales Weekly News in July 1883, which also drew attention to the early closing time in summer: "We are told by those that have observed it, that this summer the Sophia Gardens are more frequented than they ever have been. On Sunday afternoons, especially, there are thousands of people, of every age and social standing, to be seen about the grounds, and at certain hours every fine day of the week, the number of people in the gardens is also considerable, and we must say that the paths and grass are very nicely kept. But why do those having control over the gardens adhere to the preposterous rule of closing the gates as early as eight o'clock these long summer evenings?"
A number of descriptions of Sophia Gardens appeared in the Western Mail in the 1890s, not all of them complimentary. For example in October 1894 a letter was published describing its dilapidated condition. Of the few seats left, most were in a broken and decaying state. The fountain, which was at one time an ornament to the Gardens, was now an eyesore, the sides of the basin crumbling, as well as the base of the pedestal, while the basin itself was partly filled with dirty and offensive water. The public had largely given up walking the main pathways and had made themselves new paths which exposed the roots of the trees lining the avenue. Apparently the proper paths were covered in pebbles, stones and even broken glass, such that walking on them was a penance. In September 1899 an improvement was reported: "The gardens have not been so well kept for many years. A good stone embankment has been made around the lake and the result is pleasant to the eye and safe for the foot. From end to end the gardens give evidence of a new spirit of carefulness."
Two drinking fountains were shown in Sophia Gardens on the 1920s and 1940s Ordnance Survey maps, one just north east of the southerly lodge and the other on the path to the east of the bandstand. On the the 1950s map only the southerly one remained, the northerly one almost certainly having been removed to make way for the pavilion. By the 1970s the southerly one had also gone.
The Bute Estate continued to maintain Sophia Gardens until 1947 when the 5th Marquis gave it to the City along with Bute Park, the Castle and grounds.
The modern day park bears little resemblance to its appearance in the early 1900s. Now the southerly end is laid out with grass and trees and retains a broad walk running northwards. Looking north a car park occupies the space where the fountain was originally placed, and later the pavilion. Beyond that is the bowling green with clubhouse. Next is the area formerly occupied by the lake, now laid out with grass and trees. North of this is the former Sophia Gardens Field, or recreation ground, now incorporated into the park, and home to the Sport Wales National Centre, which opened October 30th 1971, and the Glamorgan County Cricket Club, for which Sophia Gardens is now best known.
Sources of Information
In general, the information in this section is taken from A. A. Pettigrew, The Public Parks and Recreation Grounds of Cardiff, Volume 1.
Other sources are: