The creation of Sophia Gardens

A sketch of Sophia Gardens, made around 1878. Photo Credit – Glamorgan Cricket Archives.

The history of this tree-lined ground on the west bank of the River Taff, and its name, like so many other features of the Welsh capital city, have a close link with the second Marquess of Bute. The Marquess  was the major landowner in Cardiff in the 19th century, besides being the man who, from the 1830s, developed the dock facilities at the mouth of the Taff.  Sophia was his wife and it was in her name that the pleasure gardens were dedicated.

Having seen similar areas of public open space elsewhere in the UK and on the Continent, Lady Sophia suggested that the area on the west bank of the River Taff could be converted into a public park. The Bute Estate managers were also aware of how this would boost the housing developments along Cathedral Road which ran north-west from the town centre.  The green light was given to the plan and after £1,500 was spent on levelling the ground, planting trees and making broad walkways, the Gardens were formally opened in 1858 with the public allowed access free of charge between the hours of 6 am and 9 pm.

A postcard of the ornate water fountain in Sophia Gardens. Image Credit – Glamorgan Cricket Archives.

Sadly, Lady Sophia died in December 1859 but by the time of her death, the Gardens had become a huge success and the Bute Estate were already extending the park in a northerly direction towards Pontcanna Farm, creating a large field for recreation and ball games. By the end of the 19th century, cricket, rugby, football, athletics and cycling events were being staged on what had become known as Gala Field, in addition to fetes,  civic galas and horse shows.

Thanks to the actions of the Bute Estate, the City of Cardiff also had a green heart. Although the number of functions held in Sophia Gardens and on Gala Field had declined by the 1930s, there was still a need for a haven of peace and quiet, less than a mile away from the hustle and bustle of the city`s main shopping streets. Consequently, in September 1947 the Fifth Marquis of Bute handed over the whole of the family`s estate including Sophia Gardens to the City Corporation on the understanding that they could not build any houses or factories on the land.