Penarth and Local Myths

Posted in the News Category


About 40 people gathered at the Parish Hall in the evening of 14th October 2021 when Alan Thorne examined some myths of Penarth. Every community has its myths and Penarth is no exception.

Alabaster mines – there was never an alabaster mine in Penarth.  There is no mention of mines on old maps and no businesses connected to alabaster mining in directories.  Alabaster could be collected from the beach when it fell from the cliffs and it may have been quarried in Penarth.  Penarth alabaster has been used in many churches and in Insole Court in Cardiff.

Where did the name ‘Billybanks’ come from? Spoil heaps from quarries were known as banks.  Mr Williams, living in Park Road is shown in a census as a quarry owner.  Were spoil heaps known as William or Billy Banks?

Docks at Cogan Pill.  Cogan village was originally called Cogan Pill and is on a tidal creek.  The Penarth Docks were built across the boundary of Cogan (Pill) and Penarth and the entrance was in Cogan.  Is this where the idea originated?

The docks were so full you could walk across the ships from one side to the other.  Photographs show ships moving from one side of the dock to the other to be loaded with coal and then to take the coal to its destination.  A dock would never be so full as to be able to walk across the ships – there would not be room to manoeuvre the ships in and out of the dock.

In January 1963 the sea at Penarth froze over.  There are photographs of a lot of ice on the beach at that time.  The thick show was removed from streets with bulldozers and loaded into tipper trucks.  The compacted snow and ice was then taken to the seafront and dumped on the foreshore.  One member of the audience remembered seeing this happen. There was no documentary or current news evidence for the sea freezing.

There used to be a sandy beach at Penarth.  There is no evidence for this either in photographs or documents.

Marconi and the first radio broadcast across water from Lavernock Point to Flatholm.  The story is that Marconi was staying at the Williams’ farm at Lavernock and asked Mrs Williams to watch a certain piece of equipment that looked like a clock at a certain time each day.  Mrs Williams and her servant Blanche Vaughan were sewing one day and watching the equipment when they saw the hand on the instrument move.  Marconi told them they had received the first radio message sent across water.  In fact the instruments were all kept outside, not in the farmhouse.  Mrs Williams also said the Marconi rowed to Flatholm daily, a feat that would have been impossible with the strong tides.

There was a large cave at Lavernock Point used by smugglers.  No caves are marked on maps and the geology of the area does not lend itself to the formation of caves.

There was a promenade and shop at St Mary’s Well Bay.  There is no evidence for this or any map or in an business directory.

There was a smugglers tunnel between Sully Island and Swanbridge.  This would have been a civil engineering miracle.  The short distance means that any tunnel would have to be very steep and be dug through solid rock with no drainage and no ventilation.  Smugglers would not use a tunnel anyway as it would be too easy for the Customs officers to stop and arrest them.

There was a harbour at Sully.  There is no evidence of a harbour but there may have been a beach landing and small commercial port at Swanbridge at one time.

No doubt there are many more myths about the area and we hope Alan will come back to tell us about them another day.

3 Responses to “Penarth and Local Myths” [latest at bottom]

  1. The Alabaster Mine
    It is true that there never was an alabaster mine in Penarth, it was in fact (just) in the parish of Lavernock.
    It was started by a Mr Terrill around 1872. It is uncertain how long it was operational but what is certain is that it was not a success and ceased operations after a very short time.
    It is also true that there never was a cave at Lavernock Point. The “cave” was in fact the disused alabaster mine, which was located very approximately one kilometre north of Lavernock Point.
    The mine is mentioned several times in the local press, the first I have found was in a description of a violent storm in 1881 which stated “…a small craft, which had been noticed driving inwards, went ashore a little to the Penarth side of the alabaster mines”. In 1885 it was noted that a vagrant had been living in the mine. An article about seven men of the 3rd Volunteer Battalion of the Welsh Regiment who drowned in 1888 mentions “the disused alabaster mine”. Later that year Frank Bright fell from the cliff top “close to the alabaster mine”. In 1893 an article by John Storrie, curator of Cardiff Museum, mentions that more than a dozen years ago (i.e. before 1881) he had found a footprint in the rocks “on the shore near the gypsum cave”. A Cardiff handbook of 1896 shows “old gypsum* workings” on a geological section. In a similar section in the BGS Memoir of 1902 the location is marked “old level for gypsum”. The drawing allows the exact location of the mine entrance to be found from the location of the geological faults it also shows. Although the entrance to the level has now caved in, there is an obvious collapse feature in the cliffs at this point. In 1906 one Samuel Baldwin was living in the mine. His story featured in many newspapers and the Weekly Mail published a photograph of him standing outside the entrance to the mine which he called “Alabaster Villa”.
    The story of smugglers using a cave at Lavernock is a myth which may have arisen from the fact that the location features in the novel “The Wreckers of Lavernock” by Annie Jenkyns published in 1885. Her description of it reads “The opening was narrow, but within was a large room, the floor and sides and roof of which were composed of alabaster”.
    * Note that alabaster is a term used to describe gypsum (hydrated calcium sulphate) that is of a good enough quality to use for carvings and ornamental purposes.
    Michael Statham

  2. There was a shop on the beach at St.marywells Bay early 1960s to 1969 ? manly ice cream and tea bucket and spayed

  3. There was apparently a quarry where Bell Vue Park is,as I lived in Bell Vue Terrace as a youngster we where told about miners who were killed there