Roald Dahl was born 100 years ago, on 13 September 1916 and spent his early years in Llandaff and Radyr. His father, Harald Dahl, moved from Norway to Cardiff to work as a shipbroker and timber importer, in partnership with Ludwig Aadnesson. The Cardiff Trade Directory for 1908 records that the company, Aadnesson and Dahl, was based in Pier Head Chambers, Bute Street.
Harald Dahl married a fellow Norwegian, Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg in 1911. When Roald was born in 1916 he already had two older sisters, Astri and Alfhild, as well as an older brother and sister from his father’s first marriage.
Roald Dahl was born at ‘Villa Marie’ (later renamed Ty Gwyn) in Fairwater Road, Llandaff, a house partly designed by Harald Dahl. The Dahls had lived there from 1907. The original plan for the house is held at Glamorgan Archives and shows a substantial family home, designed in the Arts and Crafts style, with a fine carved staircase.
After Roald’s younger sister, Else was born in 1918, the family moved to Ty Mynydd, a large Victorian house located between Radyr and Morganstown. A file in the Stephenson and Alexander Collection includes sale particulars which emphasise that the house is a very desirable residence for a gentleman and detail the extensive property and gardens, including eleven bedrooms, a large library and over 5 acres of grounds. The gardens included a variety of greenhouses and fruit store rooms, a vinery with excellent muscat and sweet water grapes and also a Peach House, a nice link to one of Roald Dahl’s most popular stories, James and the Giant Peach!
Tragedy hit the family in 1920. Roald’s seven year old sister, Astri, died from appendicitis and weeks later his father, Harald Dahl, died of pneumonia aged 57. Sofie now had five children to care for, soon to be six as she gave birth to another daughter, Asta, in the autumn of 1920.
Sofie Dahl was keen to move back to Llandaff. She wrote letters in November and December 1920 to Stephenson and Alexander, auctioneers. Writing on black edged paper, as befitting a widow in mourning, she enquired whether she might view Llandaff House, which was for sale, and also noted:
I should also like to know if you know of any other house with about 8-10 bedrooms this side of Cardiff; but it must have a good garden, and the house must be a first class built one.
After viewing Llandaff House she concludes:
it does not suit me. It was very inconvenient and in very bad repair.
She was quite firm in her views:
I do not like Lisvane. … I prefer Llandaff to any other part about Cardiff. If I can find a house to suit me, I shall sell Ty Mynydd.
Sofie did eventually put Ty Mynydd on the market. She wrote several letters to Mr Alexander and in one, dated 5 January 1921, she takes pains to point out the drainage and water system as a selling point, telling him that it was new in 1898, was installed by a well-known London firm and that local plumbers say it is the most elaborate work they have seen. She goes on to tell him that we are at present 15 people in the house and always plenty of water.
Ty Mynydd sold for £20,000 and the family moved to Cumberland Lodge, Cardiff Road, Llandaff. Although it was on a more modest scale to Ty Mynydd, sale particulars show it was still a substantial family home set in almost an acre of land, with tennis lawn, rose walk and a tea lawn with beds of roses and tulips. The family lived at Cumberland Lodge from 1921 to 1929, when the house was put up for sale. The house is now part of Howell’s School.
Documents from the archives tell us a little about Roald Dahl’s early life in Cardiff. We can only wonder how far the city inspired him in writing his wonderful stories.