'Cardiff, the greatest hell on earth' was a description given to the city in 1908 by Salvationist John Stanton. It seemed to refer to women, and to that end the book examines the lifestyles of the most arrested, the most impoverished and the most maligned of Cardiff's back street women.
A perfect storm hit Cardiff in the 19th century transforming it from a small village to major industrial centre in a few decades. With that came tens of thousands of incomers. Ships packed the new docks, and sailors with disposable income swarmed the Cardiff streets. The result was initially catastrophic. The small band of Cardiff police could not cope with the ensuing drunkenness and violence.
The author unearths the most extreme characters, such as Maggie Sawdust and Muscular Mary. There is also an examination of Wales' most arrested woman - an alcoholic with over 500 court appearances to her name. She had an unusual history compared to other multi-arrested women of that era.
What was it that got those women into the most savage of lifestyles? In the author's mind, it was social injustice and the need simply to survive newly industrialising Cardiff.
'Darkest Cardiff' was an epithet given by the Victorian media to the squalid and poverty-ridden areas of area to the south of today's Queen Street. Drunkenness, violence, prostitution, child poverty and exploitation was the norm. Streets such as Mary Ann Street, Whitmore Lane, Charlotte Street, and Bute Street would promote terror in the minds of people living on Cardiff's north side. One chapter compares two streets a few hundred yards apart: the differences are stark.
The book also looks at Victorian attitudes to the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'.
The chapter, 'The Splott Chemist and the Schoolgirl', is an example of how male superiority was seen in many quarters as sacrosanct. Women were second class citizens, as illustrated by the official business of Cardiff Town always being undertaken by men. The councillors, the magistrates, the jurors, the judges were a male-only domain. This influenced courtroom attitudes and sentencing.
Murder was commonplace and so was crime in general. One of the principal triggers to crime was alcohol. Gin palaces, shabeens, licenced ale and beer houses were jammed together in small areas, such as the newly named 'Tiger Bay', Whitmore Lane, the Hayes Bridge, and Adam Street to name just a few. Meanwhile on Cardiff's north side, the establishment and the new middle class were enjoying a 'champagne lifestyle' by comparison. Even some Temperance hotel owners became slaves to the money to be made by allowing their rooms to be used for prostitution. Tresillian Terrace brothels are examined. Children who spent their early lives in 'hell houses' and experienced Cardiff south side street life, were in most cases destined to become victims of the times.
By now a city in the 1950s, Cardiff still had its areas of prostitution, but these were mild in comparison to just a few decades previously.
John F. Wake has collaborated with others who knew and worked the streets, and also poets Cheryl O'Brien and Arthur Cole with their twenty-first century impressions of a bygone era.
'With squalor rampant, childhoods were lost, whoring their future, to hell with the cost'. (Cole).
'So, in the gutter she plies her trade, she's every whore that poverty made'. (O'Brien).
Laurie Clements knew the Cardiff old town areas well; in fact, he was born there. He adds clarity in describing the internal description of his old home.