Since Cardiff has existed on a map, it’s been a real storyteller. The things that have been achieved here, by members of the community, have not only shaped the city but often impacted the world around us, whether we realise it or not.

I’m confident that you can walk up any street here and if you look and listen carefully, secrets of the past will reveal themselves, in many different ways. One of those streets is in Cathays on Senghennydd Road, where if you stand in a particular spot, it can take you on an adventure through your city with stories of how Cardiff changed the world.

If you find this particular spot, on this particular street, in one eye line you’re able to see an insignificant house which changed the world to your left, and a storyteller of its own to your right, which has its own incredibly interesting link to the city – Sherman Theatre.

Credit: Glamorgan Archives

You wouldn’t think to look at it but Sherman Theatre celebrated its 50th birthday last year. The building was opened in 1973 and was a product of its time with a red brick facade. In 2012, it was completely ‘poshed’ up and given a facelift by Welsh architect Jonathan Adams. One thing that hasn’t changed though is the name above the door – Sherman. There’s a really interesting story behind that.

Credit: Sherman Theatre

In the late 1800s on Ninian Park Road in Riverside, two brothers were born: Abe and Harry Sherman, sons of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Lithuania who fled to Cardiff to avoid persecution, taking a gamble on a better future. The family had a small tailor business in Riverside and they went to Torah classes on Clare Rd in a room above a stable, which is a lovely Segway for horse racing.

There was a huge racecourse in Ely, which is just fields now, but back in the day was a big deal with well-attended races, similar to what you’d see at Cheltenham Racecourse today. The Sherman brothers soon realised they could make a few quid from this and learned to turn odds into profits. Their background in maths in school and college came in handy and what they managed to achieve is an excellent lesson to any kids with mathematical apathy. 

A very young Abe used to hang around the street corners of Cardiff taking bets which soon developed into opening their first bookmaking business in Victoria Buildings on Tudor Street, which is still in use today. As time went on and business boomed, they opened two offices to take bets over the phone. One was in Merthyr and the other was in Church Street, in town. Telephone bets allowed them to go national and Sherman Pools was born, going on to become one of the largest employers in Cardiff. Every one of these employees would get a chicken dinner after the winners were announced on a Sunday as a thank you for working over the weekend. I’d love for Cardiff to lay claim to the phrase “Winner, winner, chicken dinner” but it originated in Las Vegas where a chicken dinner used to cost $2, the same amount as a standard bet. So, if you won a bet, you won a chicken dinner. Now you know.

After huge success with their business, it was sold to Littlewoods in 1961 and eventually became Littlewoods Pools, which was a real staple of the weekend in many homes across the country. The brothers made considerable donations back into the community that welcomed their family all those years ago. They also created the Sherman Foundation Trust Fund for charitable and educational services. The most obvious contribution to Cardiff was £180k towards the university to build Sherman Theatre. The reason I knew of this was because of a show called ‘LOVE, CARDIFF’ which was staged at Sherman Theatre as part of their 50th celebrations last year and looked at the story of the brothers, told through the diverse communities of the city itself. 


One of the many beauties of history is how the stories that have always been there, present themselves. Whether it be through a two-line tease of information on a wall plaque, an overheard conversation, a TikTok video or a theatre production. Often these stories that are right on our doorsteps, find us.

Another recent production at Sherman Theatre, Housemates, takes us back to that spot on the street I mentioned before and points us in the direction of that insignificant house in Ruthin Gardens. In the late sixties, Cardiff hit the headlines with a scandal that sent shockwaves throughout the country and it’s behind a door in this unassuming street in Cardiff, that social care was revolutionised.

Credit: Mark Douet

The News of the World newspaper uncovered a story about the terrible mistreatment of the patients at Ely Hospital which included physical and mental abuse, a lack of medical care and ignoring of complaints. This triggered a major enquiry which found the psychiatric hospital to be completely cut off from mainstream, professional care with overcrowded and filthy wards and a complete lack of staff training.

Credit: Ely Hospital

Cardiff was completely horrified that this was happening on its doorstep, unknowingly, right under their noses and jumped to action. A small group of Cardiff University students founded Cardiff University Social Services (CUSS) which was open to all universities in Cardiff. It was founded by 18-year-old student, Jim Mansell who volunteered to take a group of learning-disabled young people, from Ely Hospital, to the cinema one Saturday. Their appearance was shocking with shabby, sack-like clothing and shaved heads to combat lice. On this day trip to the cinema, the people of Cardiff stopped in the street to give money in support. This soon developed into groups of students taking the hospital residents on day trips regularly as well as helping learning disabled people with developing new skills and more importantly, providing friendship and companionship of which they were tragically deprived of in Ely Hospital, for most of their lives. Within a few weeks, Mansell called a meeting to see how they could get Ely Hospital shut for good and support its residents more humanely. 

Credit: Glamorgan Archives

In 1974, CUSS pioneered a completely new form of care when Jim and two other volunteers moved in with five previous residents of Ely Hospital at 12 Ruthin Gardens in Cathays. In a time when learning disabled people were kept isolated in long-stay institutions, this group was integrated into the community and developed independence through the care and training roles these students took on, alongside their studies. Within a year, CUSS received funding from the Westminster Welsh office and volunteers were joined by paid support workers.

The former Ely Hospital residents developed so much that there was a real equality throughout the house and everyone lived together more like housemates. Beyond that, the housemates were helped to move forward with their lives by getting jobs and gaining ultimate independence, where in the past, hospitalisation would have been their only option. One of the housemates was Alan Duncan, a young man born with Down syndrome who had aspirations to be in a band which he achieved after moving to 12 Ruthin Gardens.

Credit: Glamorgan Archives

The work done by these students in supporting learning-disabled people and raising awareness of their radical approach, led to Cardiff Council setting up NIMROD IN 1981. They aimed to copy the CUSS model of supportive living and expand their work which eventually rolled out as standard across the country. 

After starting with just three student volunteers, CUSS transformed into The Innovate Trust which now supports hundreds of people. Ely Hospital closed in 1996 and all that remains today is the perimeter wall with a faded ELY HOSPITAL on a pillar as well as a section of tiled flooring that remains, trodden on by those who suffered the horrors they were subjected to. These students who fought for change paved the way for a brighter future for learning-disabled people, and today 100,000 people are moved into supported living houses based on the house in Ruthin Gardens. 

By living or working in our capital city, you’re already part of its story and your actions and ideas form a part of its rich narrative. Maybe one day, it could be you that’s portrayed in a theatre production, named on a plaque or even written about in Cardiff Life magazine.  

Written by Chris Lloyd


Author WCS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *