Notorious: Charlotte Street and 'The Lane'

My new book 'Notorious' will deal with thirty people over a thirty year period living and working in two notorious Cardiff streets.

My first art show was based on archetypal stories for Victorian characters, my second was based on real people from a wide time period in Carmarthen, my third was based on 30 characters from one year in Merthyr Tydfil. My paintings are based on character and personality but I also get a deep joy from history, especially the outsiders in Welsh Victorian History.

My next project is a book based on thirty people over a thirty year time period living in two streets in Cardiff- Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane. Not heard of them? That’s because they’ve been purposefully eradicated- Whitmore Lane was renamed Custom House Street in 1873 and Charlotte Street lies under the Marriott Hotel. Only one building, The Golden Cross Pub, remains in a rebuilt form on the original site. In their time from 1841 to 1870 they held brothels, beerhouses and lodging houses and a community emerged there based on vice and pleasure.

Full of prostitutes, gangsters, thieves and pimps they were very, very notorious in their day. Bute Street is still well known in Cardiff as an area for pubs and prostitutes and Cardiff docks/ Tiger Bay has a semi-mythical status now as a multicultural unique community.

The story of Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane however 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 is a story of sex, violence, money, disease, prison and transportation, drink and drugs and death.

The place of women in the community was strong also. They owned and ran brothels and beerhouses, they were prostitutes and thieves, they were drunk and violent and they also made money. Disability was not always a hindrance there either and one of the most important figures, 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 am a painter and this book with contain thirty portraits of the main people within it. All of them are social outcasts to some extent, more than half of them women and three of them disabled. All of them are intriguing. For their story I have used 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. I am turning these historical sources into a ‘creative history’ or ‘narrative history’ format, that I have admired in the work of historians work such as Helen Rogers and Lesley Hulonce. 

I am passionate about this book. My family lived there from the 1830’s until 1865. My grandmother knew her grandfather who was born there. The family were 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, using over 4,000 sources of information about these people, I’m drafting through the finished work. It’s currently around 55,000 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 photograph of The Golden Cross is from the National Library of Wales collection.