One hundred and twenty years ago, the centre of Cardiff was transformed for the Fine Art, Industrial and Maritime Exhibition which ran from May to October 1896. It was a huge event which took years of planning and which drew over one million visitors to Cardiff.
The plan to hold the exhibition came from members of the Free Library Committee of the Borough of Cardiff. Later an Executive Committee was formed to run the event and a guarantee fund was raised. The Marquess of Bute gave permission for Cathays Park to be used as the site of the exhibition. A working canal was built and there was a lake to show off the maritime exhibits. There was also an aerial railway, models of a working dairy, a biscuit factory, an oriental bazaar and a recreation of Shakespeare’s House. Musical entertainment was provided in a large concert hall. The main exhibition area was designed by Edwin Seward, who had designed many landmark buildings in Cardiff.
New inventions were exhibited. Birt Acres, an American and film pioneer, put on the first display of projected film in Wales at the Exhibition. He also shot the first film in Wales, the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to the Exhibition on 27th June.
Tragedy struck the event in July 1896 when 14 year old Louisa Maud Evans (who claimed to be a 20 year old experienced gymnast with the stage name Mademoiselle Albertina) was killed in a freak accident after ascending over Cardiff in a hot air balloon. She was participating in a stunt in which she was to descend from the balloon using a parachute but the stunt went wrong and she fell into the Bristol Channel where she drowned. Her body was washed up three days later. Her burial is recorded in the register of Cathays Cemetery where her occupation is recorded as ‘Parachutist’. Her burial and headstone was paid for by public subscription.
The records of the organising committee are held at Glamorgan Archives. The most fascinating part of the collection are the correspondence files which include letters from businesses, entrepreneurs and entertainers all over the country, keen to come to Cardiff to take part. Well known firms applied for stall space. Cadbury’s Brothers at Bourneville wrote ‘we shall only accept space that is suitable for the erection of our kiosk and from which we shall be allowed to give away or sell sample cups of cocoa and chocolate’.
The correspondence includes applications from bands and musicians, and in some cases the elaborate letter headings on which the applications were written provide added details such as the uniforms they wore. The Besses o’ th’ Barn Brass Band, for example, wore uniforms of ‘Dark Blue, with Scarlet and Gold Trimmings’. Local bands, such as the Tillery Collieries Brass Band from Abertillery also put in applications to perform. Some performers sent reviews, references and advertising posters. The Beechams, ‘Edward and Florence, globe manipulators’, performed juggling acts whilst balancing on large globes. Others offered services to advertise the event, with one gentleman keen to erect a large captive balloon of around 2,000 feet capacity with ‘Cardiff Exhibition’ painted in large letters round the ‘equator’. It was to be lit with electric light at night, all at a cost of £5 a week for the six month period.
The correspondence even contains applications for jobs at the exhibition, such as Herbert Morgan, of 63 De Burgh Street, Canton, who was applying for the position of a shorthand clerk in 1894. He writes in his application, ‘I do not use the typewriter, though I intend to become acquainted with it’.
The records of the Cardiff Exhibition offer us a wonderfully detailed snapshot of the ingenuity and creativity of the late Victorian period.