Saturday, 28 January 2017

Notorious: Charlotte Street and 'The Lane'.

Whitmore Lane on the left. The Golden Cross circa 1890. National Museums of Wales.

Sex, violence, theft and death in Cardiff.

Anne Awberry, prostitute and drunk, from the Carmarthen 'Notorious' show.
My next project is a book with paintings based on thirty people living in two streets in Cardiff- Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane over a thirty year period. It sounds a but dry but bear with me on this one. The two streets were back to back and connected with a maze of lanes and outbuildings.
Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane 1851, Cardiff Central Station is bottom left. Glamorgan Record Office.
Even if you live in Cardiff chances are you won't have heard of them. They were purposefully destroyed by the Cardiff Corporation- Whitmore Lane was renamed Custom House Street in 1872 and Charlotte Street was demolished soon after and now lies under the Marriott Hotel. Only one building, The Golden Cross, remains in a rebuilt form on the original streets. In their time from the 1830's to the 1870's these two streets were truly notorious and full of brothels, beerhouses and lodging houses. A unique community of prostitutes, gangsters, thieves, pimps, boatmen, sailors and the poor emerged there - streets of vice and pleasure.
Two of my previous shows have used historical sources from Carmarthen and Merthyr Tydfil as a basis for my paintings so this project is a natural progression.
Bute Street, which was round the corner, is still well known in Cardiff as having been an area for pubs and prostitutes. Cardiff Bay/Tiger Bay further towards the coast has a semi-mythical status now as a unique and multicultural community but it came later in the 1870's and 1880's. The story of Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane is unknown. Google searches reveal very little, academic books and articles make brief mention of it. It was a liminal area inhabited by unique subcultures. It was half town half docks, half working class half criminal, half land half water, half Welsh half Irish, half pleasure and half pain. It was a place of sex, violence, money, disease, prison and transportation, drink and drugs, laughter and death.
This is how it was described looking back in 1901:

Cardiff Times 1901 May 4th p.4.
Don't think I am exaggerating just because you may not heard of Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane. The newspapers of the time are riddled with condemnation of these two streets. In 1860:
'The name I see written on a wall in black letters, which seem to be in mourning for lost characters- lost virtue- lost purses- lost everything relating to genuine happiness and respectability, and which letters form 'Whitmore Lane'... dens of infamy, shoeless feet, broken heads, flat noses, beds full of innumerable, diminutive, bona fide lodgers of biting and teasing propensities.' Cardiff Times February 25th, p.7.
The place of women in this community was central, pivotal and strong. They owned and ran brothels and beerhouses, they were prostitutes and thieves, they were drunk and violent and they also made money on their own terms. Disability was not always a hindrance there either and one of Whitmore Lane's most important figures, Mary The Cripple, a woman severely disabled from birth, managed to thrive and support an extended family there through difficult times. She is a character unique in Welsh history. I have unearthed the lives and stories of many other individuals who were not content to live their lives according to the socially acceptable roles of the time.
Mrs Prothero's brothel on the 1851 census, age 73 her house includes her house manager Mary Davies and four prostitutes including 'The Grenadier' from Chester and 'Little Punch' from Swansea. It operated for at least twenty years.
The thirty people I write about in the book are all social outcasts to some extent, more than half of them are female and three of them disabled. All of them are intriguing. For their story I have trawled whatever sources are available- newspaper reports, censuses, gaol and workhouse records, birth, death and marriage certificates, court records and maps. Their stories interweave with each other throughout the thirty years and it is almost possible to recreate the community through their lives. I am turning these historical sources into a ‘creative history’ or ‘narrative history’ format, that I have admired in the work of historians such as Helen Rogers and Lesley Hulonce.
I am primarily a painter though and so this book will cross creative and historical boundaries by containing thirty portraits of the main people within it. I want to illustrate these people, because as far as I am aware there is only one photograph extant of them, a prisoner mugshot from the mid 1870's of one of the bullies of Whitmore Lane. There are also no photographs of the streets either from the time, the one heading this post being the closest I can find. 

Daniel Davies, aka 'Swansea Dan', a boatman and bully from Whitmore Lane. The photograph was taken in Pentonville Prison in June 1876 after a charge of shooting. He has an abscess on his hand. Source: National Archives.
I am intensely passionate about this book as on a personal note my family lived there from the 1830’s until 1865. My grandmother knew her grandfather who was born there so the link is historical and biological. My family were (unfortunately) not notorious enough to be in this book but they do appear in the sidelines. They would have known everyone in it, they would have heard about every event on the street, they lived it and they are a part of me. 
So, utilising (so far) over 4,000 individual sources of information about these people, I’m drafting through the finished work. It’s currently around 90,000 words long with 30 paintings to do alongside it.
I can’t wait to introduce you to Kitty Pig Eyes, Lewis Leyshon, Mary the Cripple, The Notorious Jack Matthews, Swansea Sue, Mrs Prothero, Billy Shortlegs, Harry Kickup and the rest of the formidable cast of Notorious who hung around the Lame Chicken, The Kings Head, The Flying Eagle and the many brothels of Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane.
The text is in a very rough draft form still as I've only recently added all of the core information in order but here's a flavour from 1841.
'Mrs Prothero, at 63 years of age, is the oldest owner of the oldest brothel in Cardiff. It gets the lion share of the business on Whitmore Lane, partly because it's right next to the Custom house where the sailors get paid off, partly because Mrs Prothero knows the game inside out. She’s also a light sleeper, alert to the comings and goings and a door banging nearby in the early hours rouses her. Hearing shouts of ‘Driver!’ from across the road she knows full well that the boatman William Bennett is in trouble again. The copper on duty has heard a grunting in a lane. He’s looked over a fence and seen Driver in the moonlight in a garden, digging up a stashed stolen goose. Mrs Prothero glides downstairs to her door in time to see Driver smashing in the head of the policeman with an iron bar. The copper has hold of Driver’s collar and manages a smash back on the head with his staff but then he faints. Driver runs off but is soon caught. Having no love for the thug, Mrs Prothero testifies in court that she saw him and he gets four months in Swansea Gaol.'
'Hard labour at the house of correction means grabbing a bar and walking up the steps of a giant wheel with a group of other inmates, turning it for no reason. Ten minutes on the wheel, five minutes off and you do that for eight hours straight.  Driver lasts six days then he dares to talk at the wheel. He’s sent to the dark cell for three nights of solitude on bread and water with nothing but a bowl to piss in.'
Driver goes on to beat children and punch sick women, but he gets his dues one dark night near the docks.....
For further reading on academic views on my paintings and their links to history please see:
Neo-Victorian review from BAVS2016 conference. by Emily Turner from Sussex University.  
Resoundingly Neo-Victorian Biofiction in Paint: Review of Anthony Rhys’s Notorious
Marie-Luise Kohlke
In Neo-Victorian Studies 8:2 2016. (Should be online but the link is down!)
Anthony Rhys 28th January 2017


  1. I plan to read all I can about my city and ancestors.

  2. Looking forward to reading it. When do you estimate completion?

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  4. Text is being polished, paintings and maps are in the pipeline, maybe summer/autumn 2018.

  5. I'd like to be alerted when your book is on sale; do you have a facebook page I can follow?

  6. Hi Denise, there's a book page here.
    Hope the link works!

  7. I cannot wait for this to come out I read all your blogs. These people are rarely represented and are more relevant to modern welsh folk than the kings and Queens we usually hear about

  8. I am doing a presentation about Charlotte Street etc. at the central library on the 19th part of a wider crime talk. Love your research. the book should be a blinder. Put me down for a copy John Wake

  9. Thank you. I heard you speak at the archives last year John-and loved the book!

  10. I can’t wait to read this! I am already gripped just from reading the introduction.

    1. Thank you Vicky! It's been fun writing it and discovering such amazing lives.

  11. My grandfather's grandfather, Thomas Thomas, was a wheelwright and carpenter living with his daughter on Whitmore Lane in 1841 and at 37 Charlotte St. in 1851. What fascinating insights into the neighborhood they lived in. Thanks for your work! I'm anxious to learn more.

    1. Oh Thomas Thomas was for from being just a 'wheelwright and carpenter' Don! He was son-in-law of Mrs Prothero and landlord of The Lame Chicken and The Noah's Ark, two very notorious beerhouses. He's a main person at the start of my book and is in it 33 times! I have lost his story after he moves away from Charlotte Street in February 1854 as the name Thomas Thomas was so common (it's easier tracing families backwards than it is forwards!)- if you could let me know where he goes after 1854 please, I'd be very very very grateful. If you could get in touch my email is gwallawg at yahoo dot com. I'll send you more information on Tommy Thomas in return! Thanks

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