Noises in the street

Originally written for ‘Save the Coal Exchange’


On a November morning in 1900 a man entered the Cardiff Coal Exchange and asked to put up a petition on their notice board. He was undoubtedly hoping to attract the attention of the men in the many offices throughout the exchange – several of whom were powerful ship or coal owners. Not only that but swathes of people came in and out of the exchange on a daily basis. After some difficulty he was granted permission and he duly put up his petition. He was seeking signatures to an appeal demanding Cardiff Council do something about the dreadful level of noise in the streets.

This certainly was nothing new. People in towns and cities throughout the UK had been complaining about street noise for decades.

Street noise in the late 19th-early 20th centuries could be overwhelming. Horses and carriages on cobbled or stone streets clattered loudly and everywhere were people shouting wares, yelling the latest news, carrying out business matters or just walking and talking. Numerous suggestions looked to counter the problem such as giving horses India rubber shoes (never happened). In 1894 a deputation of merchants asked Cardiff council to relay a road with wooden blocks from the Taff Vale to the pierhead. The noise of the traffic, said the merchants, was so great that at times it was difficult to make themselves heard in their offices. Some were even considering moving away from the dock area due to the noise. The council however was reluctant to consider the higher cost involved. But the merchants argued that if there were noiseless roads the value of the property would greatly increase. The council remained unconvinced and refused the application on the grounds that other Cardiff inhabitants would want the same.

Two years later the Chamber of Commerce proposed to Cardiff Corporation that they should pave Mount Stuart Square with wood (their offices were in the Coal Exchange so had a vested interest). The corporation approved and decided ont-morel Australian hard wood until it was pointed out that the wood was so hard it would make as much noise as the stones. So the Corporation agreed to spend £4,140 on asphalting but this was not carried out until 1897. The ship-owner, magnate and Mayor of Cardiff, T. Morel was the man who pushed through the modernisation
of the pavements and streets in Mount Stuart Square and others.

Another big problem was the street tradesmen – so much so that the Hayes had been nicknamed the ‘Hayes Market.’ “Queen street on a Saturday night,” said one man “is often nothing less than Bedlam, and the banks in St Mary’s street complain most intensely of the annoyance in the daytime.”[1]

Traders were joined by orators who were “splitting their lungs in order to explain to a mixed crowd of men, women and children things any man would blush to speak of in private. … our ears, eyes, noses, and moral sense are to be offended by the nightly doings of this olla podrida [2] of Jacks-of-all-trades, who wheel their trucks into the town and are privileged to compete with the regular tradesmen, who pay rents, rates, and taxes the whole year round.” [3]

By 1900 the situation had escalated until a group of business men formed an anti-noise movement. They organised the petition put up in the Coal Exchange asking Cardiff council to put down ‘street shouting’. Thomas Bowden Green the secretary explained that they wanted to “put a stop to the noise that goes on in Cardiff streets – boys shouting newspapers, matches, and other things.”[4] Members, he said, were mainly bankers, merchants, professional gentlemen, shopkeepers, etc and drew attention to the fact that Birmingham, Brighton and marketing-housewife2twenty other towns had passed by-laws dealing with street noise. “Cardiff,” he said, “has been defined as the worst town in the kingdom for street shouting. Bankers and others cannot conduct their business because of the terrible shouting in the streets …” Newsboys it seems were the worst offenders, “the worst of the nuisance is the war-whoop that follows the cry … It is not only the newsboys. There are the milkmen as well. They don’t content themselves with crying ‘Milk!’ It is more like caterwauling.”

The newsboys however had their own views. In response to the petition one told The Western Mail, “…course, them as is down is most put upon. Us newsboys ain’t got no money to advertise what we sells, and we ain’t got no shop windows to ‘xhibit the papers … us can only shout wiv our voices, ‘cos it’s the only thing we’s got. Blokes with money ‘tract ‘tention in their own way, and ‘cos we can’t do it the same they don’t want us to do it not at all.”

“But can’t you,” said the journalist, “Sell your papers without shrieking out what’s in them?”  The boy gave the journalist a look of pity. “It’s wot’s in it wot sells,” he said, “Blokes only wants a paper when there’s something new in it … Blokes wot wants a paper regular gets it delivered at ‘is house: other blokes don’t want no paper at all ‘ill they hears us call the new news.”

Supposing, said the journalist that the bye-law is passed? “If they does that” the boy replied, “it’ll take the Salvation Army all its bloomin’ time to keep me straight.”

Thomas Bowden Green also writing in The Western Mail said, “there is now a gradually increasing number of those who altogether decline purchasing their papers of street newsboys on account of the very unseemly manner in which they persistently thrust their wares in the faces of their would-be customers, and the still more unseemly noise they make in the public streets and thoroughfares of the town and suburbs. That the nuisance is a very real one may be gathered from the fact that during the few days more than one hundred professional firms, bankers, merchants. etc., and a similar number of hotel and theatre managers, leading tradesmen, etc., have joined in the petition to be shortly presented to the Mayor and Corporation of Cardiff, urgently requesting the street-singer3passing of a bye-law-as adopted in many other towns – to abate and control street cries and noises, including barrel organs, the milkman’s yelps, the fish and vegetable screamer, coal-bells, and the all-pervading “Echo,” “Express,” with its subsequent war-whoop! I should be glad to send you a choice collection of a hundred phrases and epithets upon the matter under discussion from the pens and mouths of Cardiff ratepayers, etc.”

Not everyone however was supportive of the anti-noise movement. Back at the Coal Exchange the petition was not favourably received – many business men expressed their disapproval of the petition having been brought inside their building. Some wags decided to draft a counter petition which was put up next to the original.

“Petition against cocks being allowed to crow, canaries to sing, dogs to bark, animals of the bovine species to bellow, people to talk, bells ringing, poor little newsboys to earn an honest living, frequenters of the football field to shout, and other unnecessary noises hurtful to the ears and understanding of the great and high-minded old women of Cardiff.”

The secretary was asked to have the original petition removed which he did. The petition however went ahead with 330 signatures over a dozen sheets. Only one man made a comment alongside his name and that was Robert Drane the well-known chemist of Queen Street. “These demons,” he wrote, “have long tormented me with their pandemonium of raucous noise, paying no rates for their privileged trade, while I am heavily taxed and may not cry ‘Bunkum’s pills, a penny a box,’ even from my own doorstep.”

The petition achieved very little and street noise did not abate until a variety of changes. The motorcar replaced the noisy horse and carts, streets were tarmacked, laws controlling child labour, taxation on sales, etc. When you walk the streets now and a noisy car blasts past – remember it was ten times worse when your great-great grandparents walked these streets.


[1] The Western Mail 1900 ‘Street Shouting’ November 14, 1900

[2] Stew

[3] Evening Express 1896 ‘Feathers and Fluff’ June 17, 1896

[4] The Western Mail 1900 ‘More trouble for the Cardiff Council’ November 13, 1900

The dragon clock and the refugee

Originally written for ‘Save the Coal Exchange’

In the beautifully preserved hall of Cardiff Coal Exchange is a clock. Flanked either side by strikingly carved dragons it has the words Tempus Fugit (time flies) underneath and in the centre is the word Spiridion. It is a word which sums up so much – fleeing refugees, determination to overcome adversity and a tale which has as much resonance today as when it began in 1819 when Wladislaw Spiridion Kliszczewski was born.

Wladislaw was born in the small Polish town of Iłża on 26 December 1819. His father Peter was a landed proprietor and something of a hero fighting for Polish independence. One evening as the thirteen year old Wladislaw was going home he met a travel-stained, bearded man with his arm in a sling. The stranger asked about the boy’s family and on hearing that Wladislaw’s mother had died promptly burst into tears. Taking him into the house to recover Wladislaw discovered this was none other than his elder brother who had limped and begged his way home from the battlefield. Peter promptly hid him but put it about the local area that his son had died. But the Russians had introduced a new mandate demanding the names of boys attending schools in order to conscript them. Rather than turn Wladislaw over to the Russians Peter decided to send both boys to Kraków which at this time was a free city under the Treaty of Vienna.

Disguised as peasants the two boys walked 188km (116 miles) – about the same distance as recent refugees who walked from Hungary to Austria. However once there they found the city surrounded by enemy forces and decided to split up. The eldest brother would head for Volhynia in the hope of making it to Turkey but was unfortunately captured on the way. But Wladislaw, dodging the enemy, managed to make it into Kraków.

He stayed for two years amongst the Polish refugees studying at a school founded by Jesuits. For a time Peter sent him money but it became too dangerous as letters were being intercepted. Following his father’s example Wladislaw joined the Polish resistance fighters and did some spying for them but was betrayed by one of the school professors. He was arrested and beaten with a knout, a type of vicious whip, which nearly killed him. He recovered and was released but just as the Treaty of Vienna was being breached. Austria now controlled Kraków and demanded that all inhabitants prove they were natives – those unable to do so would be arrested. Friends tried to conceal the boy for as long as they could but it soon became necessary to surrender him to the Austrian authorities.

Sometime later Wladislaw managed to escape disguising himself as a cook’s boy. Several times he was arrested for not having a passport and several times he escaped but was finally recaptured and imprisoned at Trieste as a “state prisoner”[1]. Asked if he would like something to do rather than sit around all day Wladislaw applied to be a watchmaker and was allowed out of prison one day a week under military escort.

An English visitor managed to befriend the boy and with the aid of a bribe acquired his freedom. He sent Wladislaw to join Captain Elliot the master of a British ship and Elliot took the boy charging him £6 passage to Britain. But he liked the young refugee so much that on arriving home he gave him the money back. The route however was not a direct one and took a year. Wladislaw had to be dropped off at various locations, where he made his living as a watchmaker, before being collected by the ship again. Parts of the voyage were fraught with danger. Spending some time in Africa he caught a fever and once again nearly died and was then was involved in skirmishes with Algerian pirates. He finally arrived in Britain in 1837 – at eighteen years of age.

Settling into London Wladislaw joined the society ‘Friends of Poland’ of which Lord Dudley Couttes Stuart, the great-uncle of Lord Bute, was patron. Lord Stuart, at his own cost, apprenticed Wladislaw to a London watchmaker but once qualified he left for Cardiff. Possibly this was on the suggestion of Bute who owned substantial estates in South Wales. In Cardiff Wladislaw went to work for jeweller Henry Grant in Duke Street – eventually marrying his boss’s sister. When Henry retired in 1856 Wladislaw who was nearing forty bought the business and decided to use his middle name, Spiridion, rather than the harder to pronounce surname Kliszczewski.

The business thrived and he soon acquired a wide reputation as an expert optician, watchmaker and jeweller. He supplied timepieces throughout south Wales and was the custodian of the clock on Cardiff City Hall. There was a thermometer outside the shop which journalists read every day and reported temperatures in the south Wales newspapers. He made bronze medals and won awards at eisteddfodau for his designs and he supplied barometers for use in coal mines.

In 1885 Wladislaw’s son Joseph met a young Polish sailor called Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski who had recently docked in Cardiff. Józef had got their address from another Polish sailor, Andrezej Komorowski who, in order to avoid military service, had left Poland as a refugee in 1880/1. Finding his way to Cardiff Andrezej arrived penniless and unable to speak a word of English. He was rescued by Joseph who gave him a pound[2], some new clothes and got him a job aboard a ship. When Andrezej later heard that Józef intended to visit Cardiff he asked him to visit Joseph and thank him for his support.

The two Joseph’s became good friends for they had much in common. Both families had fought for Polish independence and suffered accordingly and both Wladislaw and Józef had fled as refugees. Józef later wrote to Joseph facing the bitter truth that it was unlikely he would be able to return to Poland and that he should look to Britain to offer him refuge. And, possibly adopting Wladislaw’s idea of simplifying his name he signed himself J. Conrad the first time he had used the pen name with which he would become so famous.

A few years later Józef, or Joseph Conrad as he was now calling himself, returned to Cardiff and spent several days at the Spiridion home. He had by then given up the sea and turned to writing although he had struggled to get his second novel published. The publisher had required Conrad to pay a £60 deposit but he was £10 short – so his friend lent him the money. Whilst staying with the family Conrad began his third novel and Joseph went to the trouble of preparing him a quiet room to write at 78 Cathedral Road. Joseph Conrad went on to be regarded as one of the greatest English language novelists and was granted British citizenship in 1886.

Meanwhile thespiridion aging Wladislaw was pining for his beloved Poland. He had applied many times for visas to return but they were always denied. Eight years before his death he managed to visit Kraków in order to catch a far-off sight of surviving relatives and friends. But suffering from Bright’s disease he died aged 72 in February 1891.

Time flies – refugees still cross borders in search of safety, freedom from wars and the chance of a good life. And refugee journeys are still often long and fraught with danger. But how we benefitted from these particular refugees. South Wales had a wonderful watch and clock maker in the Spiridion family and Joseph Conrad found peace and stability in Britain to become a renowned writer.

Tempus fugit indeed.

[1] Then a city under the Austro-Hungarian Empire now in Italy

[2] About £100 in today’s money